Royal Albert Hall ****


Written within six years of each other in the 1930s, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana are as different as chalk and cheese.

The Stravinsky, hieratic and austere (no upper strings nor warm clarinets) seems to be distancing itself from the political turmoil of the period, while the Orff throws itself enthusiastically into populist hurly-burly (whilst occasionally revealing a previously unnoticed debt to the Stravinsky).

Bringing his full forces of the CBSO and its several Choruses, along with University of Birmingham Voices, to the Royal Albert Hall, still-new Principal Conductor Kazuki Yamada literally brought a 6000-strong audience to its feet (and not just the Arena and Gallery Prommers) after a gripping concert featuring both works.

Projection was heroic in this distancing acoustic, a far cry (forgive the pun) from the natural immediacy of the CBSO’s home at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, but Yamada was able to secure a wonderful sense of line and phrasing in the Stravinsky, orchestra Byzantine in its glitter, choruses crystal-clear in their syllabic diction (and what a worthy use of the Youth Chorus, giving the debaucheries they were later to assist!).

Throughout Yamada tempered his natural enthusiasm with communicative dignity, patiently building towards the beatific ending.

At least we had an interval to bridge the gap between sacred and profane, before Carmina Burana kicked in, the infamous wheel of Fate ticking with relentless motion, subtly inflected by Yamada’s flexibility of tempo and command of hushed dynamics, expertly realised by the CBSO Chorus.

Orff’s pseudo-medievalism was tactfully delivered by the choruses, though I wondered at the half-hearted choral swaying during the song mithering about buying a pot of rouge. Preceding that, though, was an absolutely stunning example of unanimous string bowing in the village green dance, flute and timpani providing a touchingly limping trio section.

Then we moved to the tavern, Yamada and the orchestra heroically responding to its heavy humour, countertenor Matthias Rexroth reminding us how repellent the song of the roasted swan can be, baritone German Olvera moving from the honeyed tones of his earlier contributions to the crazy tessituras of the lecherous rabble-rouser, exaggerating the bawdy bibulousness, and even trying to get the Prommers to join in (the CBSO Children’s Chorus actually had to do so).  Maki Mori had been the small-voiced soprano soloist (probably better served over the airwaves), but her ecstatic “Dulcissime” was perfectly pitched in its swaying surrender.

Throughout Kazuki Yamada conducted with ceaseless energy and response to detail. I guess  the standing ovation was less about the music, much more about the quality of performance perhaps rarely heard in the Royal Albert Hall.

Christopher Morley

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