Review: PROM 17 – ORFF'S CARMINA BURANA, Royal Albert Hall

A night of dramatic choral classics, courtesy of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

By: Jul. 28, 2023
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Review: PROM 17 – ORFF'S CARMINA BURANA, Royal Albert Hall

Review: PROM 17 – ORFF'S CARMINA BURANA, Royal Albert Hall After the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ performance of Beethoven’s theatrical fifth symphony last week, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra upped the ante by taking on Carl Orff’s cantata - which features another of classical music’s most iconic introductions. A selection of choruses were on hand to add the required vocal depth, and they were joined by baritone Germán Olvera, soprano Maki Mori, and counter-tenor Matthias Rexroth. Charismatic conductor Kazuki Yamada led the charge with the baton, on this occasion.

The night, however, began with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. This other choral piece charts a journey from Psalm 39 to Psalm 150; starting in anguish and ending in joy. The orchestral setup for this piece was unusual in comparison to what you often see at the Proms (and other classical concerts), in that it features a relatively small string section - and instead, two grand pianos. It still results in a firm, solid sound - indeed, the two pianos played in unison almost sound like an organ - just somewhat different to what you’d usually expect.

Although the chorus at times lends the piece a pseudo-religious feel, the otherwise slightly disjointed nature of the piece - and its distinctive oboe melodies - mark it out as the work of The Rite of Spring composer Stravinsky. At times it is a challenging composition to listen to, however you reap the rewards as it reaches its final resolution.

Review: PROM 17 – ORFF'S CARMINA BURANA, Royal Albert Hall
Photo credit: Sisi Burn

Following a bit of seat-shuffling and piano-wrangling during the interval, the stage was set for the performance of an epic. One in which conductor Yamada truly revelled; an energetic start led to a brief lull as the musical scene was reset, but after that he was fully recharged and powered on like the Duracell bunny until the night reached its climax with a repeat of “O Fortuna”.

That atmospheric opening movement is now synonymous with many generic dramatic moments throughout popular culture - not to mention its links with the world of Wrestlemania, Rodney Trotter’s encounters with his demonic nephew (Damien Derek Trotter), and also the 1981 film Excalibur. Despite this extreme familiarity, hearing it performed in a live setting gives it a real freshness, and you can feel your heart pounding along with the timpani as the orchestra and chorus work as one.

Orff based his composition on a collection of medieval poetry, which goes some way to explaining the wheel of fortune imagery (which ultimately leads to the repetition of the very first movement at the end of the piece), as well as the interplay of religion, chastity, wealth, lust, and gambling. Its medieval origin is also channelled through the music, so much so that the listener may not realise that it was in fact composed in 1936.

The cast of soloists also seemed to have a truly enjoyable time; baritone Germán Olvera remained onstage throughout and immersed himself in the music, whilst soprano Maki Mori and counter-tenor Matthias Rexroth made their entrances and exits partway through the performance, arriving when needed. Theirs was an extraordinary collection of voices, and this grandiose piece gave them the perfect opportunity to showcase their talents.

The event finished with a well-earned standing ovation and several bows - it was a scintillating performance all-round, and one that also sparked curiosity as to how it could be fully staged again now. Food for thought as the wheel of fortune turns…

The BBC Proms are at the Royal Albert Hall until 9 September

Photo credit: Zuzanna Specjal


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