Carmina Burana | St George's CathedralCarmina Burana by Carl Orff is one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music, chiefly for its first and final movements, “O Fortuna,” which Hollywood loves to use to score things like medieval battle scenes and supernatural confrontations. It is based on a manuscript of poems and text penned by students and clergy in the 11th and 12th centuries, written mostly in Medieval Latin and Middle High German. It explores the themes of love, lust, gluttony, the glory of spring, and spiritual matters. Carl Orff selected 24 of these poems as the basis of his musical work, which he intended to be fully staged in a style he termed “Theatrum Mundi,” which blended dance, action and visuals. It is now generally performed as a cantata with choir and orchestra, or some configuration thereof, as it was this Friday at St George’s Cathedral in Perth.

St George’s Cathedral Choir and Consort joined with WASO Percussion Ensemble and two featured pianists, Mark Coughlan and Emily Green-Armytage, under the direction of Joseph Nolan for this one-off performance. Vocal soloists included soprano Isabelle Freeman, tenor Paul McMahon, and baritone Robert Hofmann.

The evening opened with a short piece called The Rio Grande, which is a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, an English baronet and writer, set to music by Constant Lambert. The poem takes us through the sounds that waft on the “soft Brazilian air,” through noisy city streets, with church bells and bands made up of marimbas and kettledrums, all along the waters of the Rio Grande as it “rolls down to the sea.” The music reflects the dynamics of the poem, with lively percussion and prominent piano, here covered by both of the evening’s pianists. This is a warm, evocative piece that offered an escape to a balmy, latin summer night.

After the interval, the ensemble launched into the main feature, which starts with a mighty bang from the timpani and then a magnificent burst of sound from the chorus that fills the cathedral. St George’s Cathedral is a good fit for this work, with its high gothic arches and candlelit ambience, although the acoustics were sometimes a problem. Some of the piece’s rhythmic middle lines that were here covered by the pianos were lost or buried, which was only a slight disappointment. 

Carmina Burana is so delightful once it moves beyond “O Fortuna,” which unfortunately has lost some of its sonic and emotional impact from overexposure in popular culture. The piece is like a smorgasbord of sound and rhythm, a twenty-four course meal full of the savoury and the dulcet, and let’s not forget, one roast swan and plenty of drink. It’s varied, rhythmic, melodic, playful and dramatic.

The solos in Carmina Burana are very difficult for performers, all of them demanding notes well above and beyond the normal range of the requisite vocalist. The tenor solo that portrays a swan roasting on a spit is treacherous, but tenor Paul McMahon made the right choice here and very much played up its humour. The baritone solos also push the singer’s range; especially number sixteen, which requires coverage of at least two octaves by my ear, and baritone Robert Hofmann meets the challenge with his rich, resonant voice.

But for me, the star of the evening (besides the piece itself) is soprano Isabelle Freeman, a recent WAAPA graduate, who is simply divine. She is a beautifully sensitive musician, and her interpretation of number 21, “In truitina,” a movement reminiscent of Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” is utterly heart-melting. She will be a performer to watch for; at least, her performance left me wanting to hear more from her gorgeous instrument.

I enjoyed revisiting this perennial favourite, and it seemed like conductor Joseph Nolan felt the same; by the end of the night his vigorous, driving conducting resulted in his shirttails coming completely untucked. Now that’s commitment.


St George’s Cathedral presents
Carmina Burana
Carl Orff

Director Joseph Nolan

Venue: St George’s Cathedral, Perth
Dates: 16 Aug 2013
Tickets: $45 – $35
Visit: www.perthcathedral.org

Part of the City of Perth's Winter Arts Season