Sacred and Profane in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adès, Vaughan Williams, Orff: Valentina Farcas (soprano), Daniel Taylor (countertenor), Audun Iversen (baritone), RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9.11.2012 (ST)

Adès: Dances from Powder Her Face
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Orff: Carmina Burana

Peter Oundjian joked tonight that they could have called this programme “Sacred and Profane.” Too right! You can’t get much more worldly than the content of  Thomas Adès’ opera Powder Her Face, not least the (in)famous scene of fellatio. The set of dances Adès arranged from the opera make an oh-so-appropriate accompaniment to its action, leering brass and drunken wind writing sitting alongside manic ticking and sleazy rhythms that get out of control. Next to that comes the other-worldly beauty of the Tallis Fantasia, surely Vaughan Williams’ most distinctive work, with its origin in a sacred hymn tune. The RSNO string tone was always beautiful, with a particularly stunning principal viola solo, though I wasn’t enamoured of Oundjian’s interpretation. To me, he seemed to keep the orchestra on a fairly tight rein, failing to let rip in certain key moments, which lessened the impact. The interplay of contrasts was well worked, though, and the contribution of the chamber orchestra sounded emaciated and static next to the main group, almost like a faded accordion at times, making a most effective contrast.

Carmina Burana is also pretty profane, despite the fact that its texts were discovered in a monastery. Oundjian milked the piece for all its excitement, and that’s probably the best way to approach this music. After all, even once you get beyond the high octane of O Fortuna, the tempo is predominantly fast and the mood upbeat (leaving aside digressions for roasting swans and so on). The tavern sections were rowdy and the lawn scenes energetic, but the change of colour for the love scenes was very effective, helped by some very sensitive playing. The chorus bought into Oundjian’s approach entirely, giving it hell for leather most of the time and producing very good diction to go with it. The perky voices of the children’s chorus lent a special colour too. The finest of the soloists was Audun Iversen, a truly beautiful voice with a smooth tone and honeyed colour that you could revel in, but summoning enough dramatic power to convince as the corrupt Abbot. Daniel Taylor was clearly enjoying himself (too much?) as the roasting swan, and Valentina Farcas sang her part with ringing brightness and a touch of coyness that made her seem all the more winning. Carmina Burana may not be great music – for one thing, it’s far too repetitious – but its impact, with massed choruses, players and a bevy of percussion, makes it a guilty pleasure that’s hard to resist.

Simon Thompson