Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, photo: Columbia Artists Management
On my way down to hear Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carl Orff’s iconic Carmina Burana on Thursday evening, I corresponded with a musically-inclined friend overseas. I remarked that while I generally regard Frühbeck’s interpretations as intelligent and capable, I had never truly been bowled over by him. Well, now I have.
Not that I was entirely surprised; it is widely accepted that this Maestro and this piece enjoy a special relationship. Seated and bent as he was, he commanded immense power from his assembled forces. Watching Frühbeck conduct is a lesson in baton technique. His right hand did ninety-five percent of the work, while his left sat motionless, leaving his lap only when baton alone would not suffice. When he did lift it, he made no more than a gesture: A pointed finger, an extended hand, a beckon was enough. The word “ergonomic” crossed my mind more than once.
It took him some time to reach the podium, but he launched into the opening bars as soon as he was seated. Many of the choristers were still opening their books at the first strike of the drum. The balance he achieved, from beginning to end, was spectacular. Under his guidance the chorus--comprised on this occasion of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale and The American Boychoir--seemed like just another section of the orchestra. In “O Fortuna” the chorus did not get as quiet as I am used to hearing, but it didn’t matter. Frühbeck had a masterful grasp of the arc of the piece, and he found both the power and the joy of the inner movements, particularly in “Swaz hie gat umbe.”
The two male soloists were unfortunately lacking. Both of them did a good deal more acting than singing. Baritone Hugh Russell did well enough in “Omnia sol temperat,” but in “Estuans interius,” as he swaggered around like Escamillo, puffed out his chest, and made gestures at the audience, I was not convinced that he was singing specific pitches in his lower register. In “Olim lacus colueram,” his only moment in the spotlight, tenor Nicholas Phan made plenty of amusing faces, but sounded strained all the way through.
Meanwhile, soprano Erin Morley stunned. She has a lovely, full voice, and can sustain marvelously. “In trutina mentis dubia” was wonderfully intimate. She stands still and focuses on her singing, which is not to say that she can’t act: There was doubt, desire, and anticipation in her facial expression. There was all of that and far more in her vocal expression. My one nit to pick would be that she sounded just the slightest bit pinched at the top of her first leap in “Dulcissime,” but she managed to open it up into a gorgeous, soaring tone. Her upper register is miraculously clear without piercing, and volume is very obviously not a problem for her. A four thousand-seat voice? Perhaps.
The first half of the program certainly provided contrast. It opened with Haydn’s Symphony no. 1, perhaps not his first chronologically, but an early symphony in the history of symphonies, from the good old days when three-movement works could run under fifteen minutes. Frühbeck’s conducting was precise, and he found some very nice colors in the second movement, though I could barely hear the continuo, as the harpsichord was buried somewhere between the cello and viola sections. Not a transporting performance, but it charmed a smile out of me, just as early Haydn should.
Another piece from the Classical period, Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E Major (1803) rounded out the first half. It was performed in E-flat, as is now standard, by the orchestra’s principal, David Bilger. One does not hear brass concerti terribly often, and it is always a funny experience for me to be reminded of what a trumpet sounds like when it isn’t coming through row on row of strings. Bilger was imprecise with one or two of the trickier figures, but on the whole he carried it off admirably. The second movement was quite beautiful; he was more successful finding tenderness than authority, which strikes me as an odd thing to say about a trumpet player. Frühbeck had some trouble following him in the last movement—odd, given that Bilger was fairly steady throughout—but it ended crisply.
A woman sitting in front of me remarked before the performance began that she could have just skipped the first half and not missed anything. Unfair, I think, though it is funny how orchestras like to make their audiences “take their vitamins,” so to speak—be it old or new, Handel or Hindemith.