Mercoledi Musicale

Two Saturdays past the Academia di Santa Cecilia gave us one of those works that has become almost cliche: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. But I remember when it was still a rarity and the music was something new and exciting. The first recording of it that I owned was conducted by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos, who led the forces of ASC at this most recent concert. His interpretation has matured over the years – and yes there are refinements to be found in the piece – but I missed a bit of that youthful exuberance that he brought to that first attempt. And maybe I’m missing the youthful exuberance I brought to first hearing it.

One of the great sopranos of the late 20th century, Lucia Popp, was the soloist on that recording. A few years later she teamed with baritone Hermann Prey in a rather bizarre Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film version. Ponnelle was a great designer-director and when he was on form – Falstaff, Italiana in Algeri, Cenerentola, Barbiere, Zauberflote – he was magnificent. But when he went for baroque, as he often did, the results could be beautiful but strange. His take on Carmina Burana, though scholarly and probably true to its 13th text, was one of those things that is just too over the top.

Before it became a beer commercial – one can only hope the Orff Estate is making lots of money on that one – the opening was a powerful statement of Medieval skepticism.

O Fortune, like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing and waning;
hateful life first oppresses
and then soothes as fancy takes it;
poverty and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate is against me
in health and virtue,
driven on and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate strikes down the string man,
everyone weep with me!

Ponnelle’s concept of The Court of Love, though politically incorrect for us, is actually very much in keeping with text and music. The troubadours saw love as both a courtly and a carnal thing. And if surrender is made to the carnal it couldn’t be anymore beautiful than Popp’s Dulcissime. Listen for it at around the 6:21 mark: Dulcissime! Ah! totam tibi subdo me! – Sweetest one! Ah! I give myself to you completely. Here the image meets the sound – both are stunning.


Though the performance at Santa Cecilia may have lacked great soloists it did have our brilliant chorus and orchestra again in top form. And Frübeck de Burgos showed that familiarity had only bred a deeper love and knowledge of Orff’s best known work. And perhaps now my more experienced ears discovered beauties that were hidden when I first heard it.

10 dicembre – Beata Vergine Maria di Loreto