Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir adventurous in Bartok, irresistible in Orff

Orchestra Wellington presents:

BARTOK – Cantata Profana
ORFF – Carmina Burana

Amelia Berry (soprano), Amitai Pati (tenor), Christian Thurston (baritone)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Wellington Young Voices (Mark Stamper, director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd May, 2021

Encountering a work in concert every now and then that has somehow “slipped through the net” of my musical experience sometimes results in a bit of a “juggle” of contrasting feelings, and especially when one is a reviewer – I get enormous pleasure in the discovery of something new, but also feel a degree of guilt at not having come across the “something” earlier, and especially if it’s a work by a well-known composer! Bartok’s “Cantata Profana” fell into this category – a work that was new to me, and one which needed some familiarising on my part via recordings before I felt better prepared for the “Virtuoso Voices” concert, so as to get at least some of it already playing in my head.

I confess I didn’t really know what to expect, though having seen and heard Bartok’s opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” I was familiar with something of the composer’s vocal writing style, one which reflected his preoccupation with Hungarian and Roumanian folk-tunes and their idioms, a process akin to what Musorgsky had attempted to do a few years earlier in Russia, by reproducing idioms and accents of native speech in his music in search of something “Russian”. Bartok had collected the two poems in the form of Roumanian colinde or carols, on which he based his cantata’s story, in 1914, at first assigning the Roumanian texts to a Hungarian poet for translation, but eventually using his own Hungarian translation. He then entrusted a German translation to Bence Szabolcsi, a Hungarian musicologist, and an English translation to the polygot Michel-Dmitri Calvocoressi (whose translation, ironically, was used at the work’s premiere performance in London, in 1934, the first printed edition of the score using the German and English texts!). Fascinating!

As I’d heard only Hungarian texts in the recordings I’d listened to, I couldn’t help registering the difference made at the concert itself by the relative “softness” (almost to the point of “blandness” in places) of the English works, which presented for myself and people who sat nearby to me at the concert the performance’s only drawback – the unintelligibility of most of what was being sung. For all the Michael Fowler Centre’s qualities as a musical venue it tends to blunt and blur word-detail – vowel sounds and tonal colour do well, as here, but consonants and sharper detail get lost in the spaces without extra emphasis given their articulation – even when words are in English! Had we not had the general outlines of the cantata’s story written in the programme notes we would have been completely lost! – I wondered whether the cantata’s English text might have been somehow projected for all to see?

A good thing it was that the performance was so very atmospheric in an overall sense, its sequences so convincingly characterised, with the musicians conveying to us the different moods of the action and the feelings of the characters, albeit in a somewhat generalised way. From the beginning the story’s mystery and magic was conjured up by the dark sounds, the swirling mists and eerie lines preparing us for the strangeness of the events about to unfold, singers and players held in firm dynamic control by Marc Taddei’s direction, the lines replete with the composer’s characteristic rhythms and folkish figurations, then bursting into action as the hunt was portrayed by the fugal writing, with the story’s “nine sons, splendid offspring” whom their father had brought up and trained “for the savage mountains, with hunting skills”. As the sons pursued their quarry, the music underwent a wondrous change – “….they found “a graceful bridge showing magic deertracks” –  in crossing the bridge, the sons were changed by this same magic into stags – “the splendid hunters thus became the hunted”.

When the father, searching for his lost sons, found the stags, he raised his rifle to shoot one of them, the music agitating as the choir cried out repeated warnings, prompting the stag to speak with the voice of the son to his father, cautioning him not to shoot – such splendid singing, here, from tenor Amitai Pati, fully equal to the demands of the writing, with the ringing, heroic tones required from the character. The choir introduced the bass soloist Christian Thurston’s softer-grained voice as the father, pleading for his sons to return home to their mother, to “lanterns lit”, and to “goblets of wine” – but the son replied that they could never return home to these things, as their antlers “are wider than your doorway” and that now “they can drink their fill only from clean mountain streams”.

The text then reverted to the story’s beginning for the choir to tell the narrative once again, the voices producing some beautifully-modulated phrases, conveying such longing, and (as on every occasion I listened to a recording) bringing tears to the eyes of this listener as the fate of both the nine stags and their bereft parents were so very movingly reiterated. Though Bartok described this music as embodying “his most profound credo”, he left others to wonder at what he might have meant to convey through the story……he was evidently very much at home with nature, spending a good deal of his time out of doors, avowing nature’s freedoms as opposed to the different kinds of cruelties of civilisation – in this respect the story was a kind of “cautionary tale”, the sons becoming the hapless victims rather than the perpetrators of crimes against living things, and against nature in general, and the father reaping the pitiless price of his own exploitative attitude towards creatures in the wild.

Despite the difficulties concerning the text, the overall impression conveyed by the performance to this listener gave the experience of hearing the work a lasting value beyond words. And it was a perfect foil for what followed in the concert’s second half – nothing less than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the composer’s marvellously uninhibited settings of a hedonistic paean to life’s pleasures and sorrows in the form of a collection of anonymous medieval verses which have survived the ravages of time and circumstance in order to delight present-day sensibilities and (in places) console vissicitudes alike!

Having reviewed an Orpheus performance of this work as recently as September 2019 –


I’m finding it hard to escape the feeling (from memory) that there could be a lot of repetition in my comments regarding the singing, though as the previous performance involved the Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble rather than the full orchestra, there will be “tweaks” of different emphasis here and there. One detail I had forgotten until I accessed the earlier review was that a SCREEN was used on that occasion to “project” the English translations of the words during the Orff! – I rest my case regarding the Bartok (see paragraph 3 above), this time round!

Another repetitive refrain from yours truly concerns the tempo taken by Marc Taddei for the opening “O Fortuna” on this occasion, something about which I find myself seemingly pushing a fairly lonely critical furrow in opinionating that most conductors take the sequence excessively quickly, given the out-and-out “lamenting” nature of the text! – however, the sheer energy of Taddei’s and the orchestra’s performance on this occasion was admittedly breath-catching, and impressive in its way! Still, the real enjoyment of the performance for me began with “Primo vere” (In Springtime), the bright, piping percussion and silvery winds framing the singing so fetchingly, and the ambience wonderfully spacious in the wake of the work’s almost “blitzkrieg” opening! I liked, too, Christian Thurston’s world-weary baritone solo “Omnia Sol temperat “, the character perhaps seeming a little tired of excessive drinking and whoring, and looking to the spring for renewal!

After the bell had resoundingly lingered at the conclusion of “Ecce gratum”, great percussive crashes heralded the “Dance”, played with a rhythmic verve that almost lifted us out of our seats with the energy of it all. Following the imposing beginning to “Floret Silva” the charm of the subsequent exchanges sounded well-nigh irresistible, as was the women’s plaintive singing in the “Shopkeeper, give me the colour” plea for an “aid” with which to capture a younger lover. The “Slow Dance” wove its spell of sensuous languidity, complete with nostalgically-sounding brass, which left us, like the hapless Faust, about to exclaim “How fair this spot” and looking to remain in damnation! – however the strumming strings woke us from the dream (the men’s voices, too, were a bit slow on the uptake at first with their “Swaz hie gat umbe” at the start of the Round Dance!) But what balm for the senses were the women’s voices in the interlude, before the strings took up the strumming once again! And what brilliant brass playing with which to conclude the sequence, as befitted the “surprise appearance” of the Queen of England, which concluded the first part!

Christian Thurston’s soft-grained voice did its best with “Estuans interius”, and “Ego sum abbas”, both sections calling for fiercer declamations, though he did better with the Abbot of Clucany’s piteous cries of “Wafna!”, accompanied by earth-shattering percussion outbursts! In between came the heart-rending “Song of the Roasted Swan”, with tenor Amitai Pati reappearing, and straightaway “nailing” the unfortunate bird’s anguish, though I thought the men’s voices a tad reticent in their ”Miser, miser!” rejoiners at the end of each verse.  Fortunately they moved their throttle up several notches for the incredibly vigorous “In taberna quando sumus” – the drinking song to end all drinking songs! Especially telling, I thought, was the darkness of it all, with the more sinister utterances as compelling as the clangorous ones!

What a change, as the scene shifted to “The Court of Love”, with everything cool and fresh once more – a superb evocation! The Wellington Young Voices sounded as they looked – bright, eager and innocent, followed by Amelia Berry’s silver-toned “Siqua sine socio”, beautifully supported by the winds. Christian Thurston’s soulful “Dies nos et omnia” came over well, with a properly pathetic-sounding  falsetto and a po-faced descent at the end, the self-communing aspect ruefully conveyed.

As for Amelia Berry’s “Stetit puella”, with those melismatic “Eias’ at the end of each verse, well who would not have fallen in love with her by the time she had finished floating the second one towards and all around our helpless sensibilities? Marc Taddei then took “Circa mea pectora” at a tremendous lick, the repeated Mandaliets almost whizzing into orbit at the end of each verse! The men-only chorus “Si puer cum puella” got a terrific response from the voices here, vigorous and clear-toned, with baritone Christian Thurston characterfully spurring them on, the succeeding “Veni, veni venias” giving the sequence even more visceral excitement, the conflagration spreading from the voices to the orchestra with what seemed like animal energy!

We needed settling down for a moment after that, Amelia Berry’s “In trutina” giving us a precious sequence of gorgeously-shaped singing, the top notes perhaps not as free as in the previous solo, but the descents as graceful and seductive as could be. “Tempus est locundum” then burst in, the children’s choirs (in two parts on either side of the platform) bobbing up and down to sing their refrains by turns with the baritone, the final time all together! This time, at “Dulcissime”, Amelia Berry’s ascent was breath-taking, the line positively snow-capped! – and her final phrase, dream-like and enraptured, immediately put me in mind of soprano Emma Fraser here in the same hall in 2014 who had at that time put me in mind of the incomparable Lucia Popp! What more can one say?

The penultimate “Blanchefleur and Helen” from choir and orchestra made an overwhelming impact straight afterwards (but I forgot to listen for the ringing bell, of which I’m terribly fond!). Whether there or no, we were summarily returned to the mercies of the Empress of the world, “Luck”, with the same massive percussive chords and driving energies as the work had begun with, what now seemed an age ago! Naughtily, but forgiveably. Marc Taddei “held onto” the work’s final chord, asking for more from his singers and players, and, excitingly, getting what he wanted! – a resplendent ending to a remarkable performance and a wonderfully adventurous concert!