Carmina Burana April 2019

Exeter Music Group Orchestra and Choir

For their Spring concert EMG once again joined forces with the visiting choir of L’ensemble vocal et intrumental Jean-Marie Lorand, from Exeter’s French twin city of Rennes. An article in the printed programme related the story of this collaboration, which has flourished for more than thirty years. With the main item being Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana, the result was a completely sold-out Exeter Cathedral, a heart-warming sight for the organisers and all supporters of live classical music.

Appropriately for the visiting choir, the first half of the concert focused on the refined orchestral world of Ravel’s Menuet Antique and Debussy’s La Mer. The Menuet is an intimate piece, and the delicate tracery of its woodwind conversations felt a little distant in the enormous acoustic space of the cathedral, but the swirling, surging sea sounds of La Mer, famously completed while Debussy was staying at a seafront hotel in Eastbourne, allowed the orchestra full rein, and the chance to finish with a brilliant climax.

For Carmina Burana Orff uses a huge orchestra but deploys it in vividly clear lines, and EMG met this challenge full on, with a six-strong timpani and percussion section stretched across the back. Many details caught the ear: the opening choral shout; flutes and oboes in ‘Veris leta facies’; complex rhythms in the orchestral Tanz and the dancing, lilting ‘Floret Silva’; a beautiful warm strings-and-percussion cushion in ‘Reie’; the solo bassoon at the start of ‘Olim lacus colueram’; several flute solos and duets; the unaccompanied semichorus ‘Si puer cum puellula’. Conductor Leo Geyer, together with EJML’s Eloi Marchand, who shared conducting duties in the later movements, held it all together through a constant flow of tempo changes and transitions, never relinquishing momentum. For all its familiarity this is not an easy piece to perform!

Baritone soloist Julian Rippon and tenor Michael Graham, together with the men’s chorus, did the heavy lifting in the ‘In Taberna’ section, but I feel some of the best music in the piece surely comes in the next section, ‘Cour d’amours’. Orff requires a children’s choir – and there they were, the ‘ragazzi’, lining up in front of the first violins. They looked surprisingly tiny and didn’t make a lot of noise, but were a charming addition in ‘Amor volat undique’. Then Julian Rippon gave us the lyrical ‘Dies, nox et omnia’, slipping into falsetto at the top of the song’s challenging three-octave range. The soprano solos in this section are crucial, and Héloïse West sang with wonderful clarity, focus and intonation. ‘Stetit puella’ and ‘In trutina’, the latter with perfect hushed orchestral accompaniment, were moments of truth and beauty.

In some circles Carl Orff is regarded as a less ‘advanced’ composer than, say, Debussy. But there’s no denying the effectiveness of Carmina Burana. Stripped of tonal complexity, but vividly coloured and pulsing with rhythmic energy, this is music that can excite and entrance an audience, filling the deep space of the cathedral with its elemental force.