The inter-war years produced some of the most dynamic and popular choral works that have been composed since the 18th century. Tonight's London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, conducted by Hans Graf, combined two very different results of this flowering. Both masterpieces in their own way, they unexpectedly complemented each other and made for an entertaining concert.
The Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms was composed in 1930 when the composer was at the imaginative height of his neoclassical period. With this work and works such as Oedipus Rex and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, he found an austerity that transcended the more light-hearted aspects of neoclassicism. These pieces find a very deep vein of profundity and beauty that links them to his important earlier Russian works such as The Rite of Spring and Les Noces and as such must rank as one of his greatest and enduring works.
In the Symphony of Psalms, the orchestral scoring is particularly telling. Omitting the upper strings and the clarinets gives the sound of the piece an edge, with reedy woodwind and brass dominating. Much of the choral writing has a chant-like quality, with less emphasis on polyphony and more on blocks of harmony. This is music of restraint and dignity and the LPO forces under the baton of a conductor new to me, Hans Graf, found the right level of intensity through some measured tempi and precision playing, particularly from the woodwinds. At times, a problem of balance seemed to occur, with the choir seeming not to come through the textures with enough bite. But this may have been more about Stravinsky's pungent orchestration than any fault in the performance.
Carl Orff's music has been virtually ignored outside Germany, apart from the fact that Carmina Burana is quite possibly the most popular choral work in the repertoire. It remains quite odd that one of the most obnoxious men in musical history should have written one of the most irresistible works ever composed. Orff was a tricky man whose eagerness for success led him into some very deep waters, both politically and personally. Carmina Burana was one of the favorite works of the Nazi regime and it was very clear that he relished the fame and fortune that this gave him. After the war, he was happy to implicate and blame friends and colleagues to justify his actions during these dark years. The fact that Carmina Burana has more than survived these taints is evidence of its quality and popular appeal.
Hearing it for the first time in a concert (though I wore out my old LP in my teens), the orchestra, chorus and Hans Graf delivered the work with a level of restraint and refinement that many other performances lack. Maybe the leavening experiences of performing the Stravinsky beforehand had had a sobering effect. Not that it was a dull performance – how could any performance of this work be described as dull? Passage after passage of infectious rhythms and melodies, that annoyingly follow you everywhere for days after hearing them, add up to the irresistibility of the piece.
There was no hint of balance problems between the orchestra and the chorus in the Orff, whose crisp orchestration enabled the London Philharmonic to let their hair down and show us their richness of tone and rhythmic versatility. The three soloists all delivered fine performances, with the Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov suitably youthful and lusty. Andrew Kennedy was outstanding as the roasting swan, finding a perfectly judged clarion tone in which he didn't over-egg the cake – making the scene touching rather than just cruel. Sarah Tynan, who stepped in at the last minute to replace the sickly Sally Matthews, had just the right sweetness of tone to give the final Courtly Love scene the sensuous quality it needs – although she couldn't quite erase memories of Lucia Popp, gloriously sensual in the filmed version of the work by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle from 1975. But then, who could?
The texts, by the golliards themselves, captivated the composer. They found a home in the ritualistic, Stravinsky-influenced compositional style Orff had been honing. One that was full of motoric patterns, driving energy, percussive sprinklings and distinct orchestral colours, much of which can be traced directly to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.
But alongside its imposing shapes and furious rhythms, Carmina Burana shows haunting tenderness and biting humour, too.
Free pre-concert event, 6.15pm until 6.45pm, Royal Festival Hall Hans Graf looks at the Symphony of Psalms and the lasting appeal of Carmina Burana.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Hans Graf © Christian Steiner