Swaggering Orff Follows Oboe d’Amore

United StatesUnited States Bach, Orff: Robert Walters (oboe d’amore), Rebecca Nelsen (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone), Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Robert Porco (director), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, Ann Usher (director), James Feddeck (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 11.4.2013 (MSJ)

Bach: Concerto in A major for oboe d’amore and orchestra, BWV 1055
Orff: Carmina Burana

Snobs sneer at Carl Orff’s greatest hit, Carmina Burana. They say it is a rip-off of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, that it is repetitious, vulgar. But anyone not on a high horse can see the wildly popular work for what it is: a masterful piece of theater. Was Orff inspired by Stravinsky? Sure. But he took the idea of a faux-medieval invocation crossed with local color and brought it off with an approachable entertainment value Les Noces can only dream of. Repetitious? Perhaps. Or one could also say Orff invented minimalism 30 years ahead of Riley, Reich, and Glass. And vulgar? Yes, in places, delightfully, profanely earthy. But in other spots the piece is as tender as the first green shoots of spring. In my book, it’s a work of genius. In theory, anyone in the mid-twentieth century could have written something like Carmina Burana, but the fact is, only Orff did. It is a characteristic piece of the age. Orff wins.

Further undermining the notion of Carmina Burana’s supposed simple-mindedness are the hundreds of carefully plotted details, which help shape the score so that it makes a distinctive dramatic whole. There are so many such moments that an accurate performance used to be a lot to ask for. But after the last few decades, when musicians have gotten used to Mahler and his swarms of detailed instructions, Orff’s minutiae seem much more manageable. Thursday night’s Carmina Burana, by the collective forces of the Cleveland Orchestra and its choruses led by James Feddeck, happily delivered with both barrels blazing—detailed, yet spirited.

The concert was originally to be led by the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst—a formidable conductor of big choral works in general, and Orff in particular—but he strained his back in Vienna a couple of weeks ago and was told by his doctors to spend some time recuperating. While I wish the maestro a speedy recovery, I can assure him that things are in good hands with his assistant, Feddeck, who led a swaggeringly assured yet intensely nuanced performance.

Typical of Feddeck’s refinements was his subtle increase of speed at the first forte after the quiet, ominous chanting of the opening chorus, “O Fortuna.” Most performances miss this and numerous other tiny but important adjustments, but Feddeck caught them all. I would take exception with his interpretation of the moment between the penultimate “Blanziflor et Helena” and the closing recapitulation of “O Fortuna.” Feddeck treated this as a full beat pause, not a quick breath. I prefer a briefer pause (suggested by Orff’s “attaca” instruction), which allows the grandiose hymn to Venus to crash immediately onto the rocks of fate, bringing the circle complete. But that was only one point I took exception to, balanced against uncountable others brought off with the composer’s notations in mind.

A few shortcuts were taken in the traditional spots where Orff’s note values are tricky to bring off, such as the duple-value notes which interrupt the rolling triple rhythm in “Swaz hie gat umbe.” One such crutch broke in “Si puer cum puellula” when Feddeck interpolated an unmarked breathing pause before the return of the opening phrase, and at least one chorister plunged right into it, ahead of his fellows. That number was performed—as has become customary—with all the males of the chorus, even though Orff’s score calls for six solo males. (Refer to the recording by Eugen Jochum and the orchestra and chorus of the Deutsche Oper to hear how it sounds with a small group.)

The soloists had a field day characterizing their parts. Tenor Nicholas Phan fanned himself after each verse of the song of the roasted swan, “Olim lacus colueram,” and at the end, collapsing dejectedly in his chair. Then baritone Stephen Powell lurched to the edge of the stage to sing “Ego sum abbas,” the drunken song of the gambling Abbott of Cucany. An ecstatically emotive Rebecca Nelsen even wore a red dress to match the garment described in “Stetit puella.” Such theatrical touches could potentially ring hollow, but here they helped achieve musical storytelling in what the composer described as a “scenic cantata.” Powell’s vigorous declamation was combined with a poised execution of the high-lying passages of “Dies, nox et omnia,” though Feddeck could have restrained the orchestra a little more in “Estuans interius,” to keep the baritone from getting swamped. Phan was fearless and arch with his falsetto tenor, but best of all was Nelsen, who radiantly warmed her solos. Feddeck tried to move her along in the tender “In trutina,” but Nelsen held her ground for a slower tempo, bringing a moment of repose before the final sprint. Her “Dulcissime” was sweet, unlike the shrill scream all too often heard.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, were in fine voice, not merely singing the notes but delivering them with inflected intensity. Porco also knows the difference between standard Church Latin and the demotic dialects used in these medieval poems. He had the chorus delivering the words with an appropriately tart Germanic pronunciation, helping define the sense of place (given the work’s roots in a monastery in Bavaria). The Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus was polished to a fine sheen by director Ann Usher, though it was arguably too fine for “Tempus est iocundum,” which can benefit from a little boisterousness. Now, for future reference, how about giving us Orff’s sequel: Catulli Carmina, for soloists, chorus, and percussion?

The concert opened with Severance Hall’s very first presentation of a concerto for oboe d’amore. The instrument is the mezzo-soprano voice of the oboe family, and was often used by Bach in his cantatas. No Bach concerto for the instrument was known until scholars pointed out a few decades ago that if one removed the harmony notes in the solo part of Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in A, the melodic line and passage-work fitted the range and fingering of the oboe d’amore. Evidently, Bach rewrote the piece as a keyboard concerto, and no copy of the original score survived.

The reconstruction is completely convincing, particularly in the poignant “Larghetto,” which became a dark-hued aria without words in Robert Walters’s performance. The outer movements were lively, though Walters never lost his limpid poise. Feddeck conducted with some rather fulsome gestures, but I can live with those as long as the orchestral sound he gets is so stylish. Historically informed playing styles have only recently begun to infiltrate the Cleveland Orchestra and replace bloated vibrato with lean incisiveness. Feddeck encouraged clarity and dramatic accents, contrasting delightfully with Walters’s dark-honey timbre. Though Cleveland has an outstanding period instrument orchestra—Apollo’s Fire—it is welcome to see the symphonic ensemble welcoming the glory of Baroque music back into its repertory, now with a fresh approach.

Mark Sebastian Jordan