I’ve finally found a few minutes before dinner to post a quick review of last night’s St David’s Day concert at St David’s Hall here in Cardiff.
I was very lucky with the tickets for this because when I first went on the on-line booking system there didn’t seem to be any blocks of good seats available, and I was hoping to go with a contingent of work colleagues and their partners. However, I was then distracted by work things and decided to try again later. When I logged on again, a set of front-row seats had mysteriously appeared. I snapped them all up for £20 quid each and had no problem finding buyers for them all. And so it was that we took our seats last night just a few feet from the edge of the stage for the performance, which was broadcast Live on BBC Radio 3.
The main item on the bill was the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, which accounted for the huge number of singers ranged up behind the stage. These included not only the BBC National Chorus of Wales (on the right of the stage) but also massed County Youth Choirs from all across the Principality (in the centre) and a choir of very young children from Ysgol Gymreig Pwll Coch to the left. The latter, I should say, in case I forget later, were absolutely terrific.
However, before the interval the divers choirs had a chance simply to listen to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov, featuring Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams. It was a pleasant enough warm-up, with flashes of virtuosic brilliance as well as lots of changes of mood, although I did think it took soloist and Orchestra quite a while to gel together. Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the South Bank Show, although I think quite a lot of people know that.
Anyway, it’s quite a short piece so the interval came up quickly. In the bar we found free Welsh cakes and bara brith, which was delicious, and 20 minutes later we were back in the hall for the main event.
The Carmina Burana is of course an extremely popular concert piece, but the fact that it’s so well known hasn’t resulted in it becoming a commonplace experience. It’s one of those works that can sound fresh and exciting no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. In fact, last night’s performance was gripping right from the start.
It’s probably a dangerous trick for a composer to use their best idea right at the start, but it works in this case. The opening O Fortuna made it clear to every one in the hall that we were in for a treat, as the sense of controlled power from the massed voices was quite spine-tingling. There’s only a problem with starting brilliantly if you can’t sustain it, but that’s not the case with the Carmina Burana. The text is taken from a curious collection of 13th century poems – mainly in ecclesiastical latin, but with smatterings of German and Provencal. Curious because, although they were written by monks, they are decidedly secular in subject matter including bawdy drinking songs and lewd lyrics about sexual lust. The music is quite varied too, using bits of plain chant alongside more modern-sounding sections. In other words, there are enough contrasts in both subject matter and musical style you keep you hooked all the way through; at least that what I felt.
As well as the massed choirs there are three solo vocalists, although the work isn’t shared equally. Baritone Christopher Maltman had by far the most to do and he certainly earned his crust. Soprano Sarah Tynan sang her pieces very nicely, especially when she was teamed up with the splendid children’s choir. Tenor Allan Clayton only had one piece to do – a song about a swan being roasted on a spit – but he didn’t fluff it when his chance finally came.
Conductor Andrew Litton (left) cut an engaging figure on the podium. Bouncing up and down with an energy that belied his rotund appearance I thought he looked like a cross between John Sessions and Jocky Wilson. He also kept the enormous orchestral and choral forces together quite superbly and managed to conjure up an excellent performance from all concerned. When we made it to a local restaurant after the performance we found him sitting just one table away. He’d certainly earned his dinner!
Carmina Burana ends with a recapitulation of the initial number O Fortuna – best known perhaps for being used in the film The Omen – after which much applause reverberated around the hall. Rightly so, as it was a really wonderful concert.
It didn’t end quite there, however. Since it was St David’s Day there was a final rendition of the Welsh National Anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau which the audience joined in. With the massed choirs belting it out as if their lives depended on it I’m not sure how much we were heard on the Radio, but I can tell you that it sounded great inside the hall.