What a stark contrast between the visual and the aural at last Thursday’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl. On stage was the 79-year-old conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, appearing frail as he shuffled towards the podium; the gauntness of his features accentuated by his suit which hung loosely from his frame. Yet the din of sound, the elemental fury and ecstasy which he roused from the combined forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana saw the fragile exterior give way to youthful passion and strength undimmed by aging’s relentless tread.

Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos © Steve Sherman
Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos
© Steve Sherman

For Frühbeck Carmina Burana has become something of a calling card. In 1965 he made what could arguably be called the definitive recording of Orff’s raucous celebration of wine, women, and song with the New Philharmonia Orchestra of London, a recording which remains available in CD format—with countless performances following in the intervening half-century (he’s scheduled to conduct it again on September 6 in Copenhagen). To his performance at the Hollywood Bowl, Frühbeck brought a distillation of a lifetime’s experience married to a sense of spontaneity that further highlighted the lustful merriment of the score.

It was a flexibility of approach that at times seemed to threaten to derail the music, to say nothing of his singers, chorus, and orchestra. But Frühbeck—with a wizened, aristocratic profile that could have emerged from a dream by Cervantes—managed to give the impression of total abandon within a tight framework of control.

From the orchestra Frühbeck coaxed the full spectrum of Orff’s near-Technicolor orchestral display. The blend and juxtapositions of winds, brass, strings, percussion and voices were as much cries of desire and cosmic joy as they were snapshots of a composer at the height of his powers; able to conjure colors and set to music the score’s medieval texts with knowing sophistication.

At the heart of this dizzying maelstrom of sound is the human voice—and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the lineup of soloists were nothing short of ideal. Especially baritone Hugh Russell, who brought to his role a frenetic glee drunk on orgasm and ambrosia.

Preceding the Orff were selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from which Frühbeck drew only a handful of selections, curiously omitting the Overture. It was a bold, weighty performance; a massive, Teutonic rendering built on a strongly profiled bass that would have pleased Otto Klemperer. Frühbeck’s deliberate reading of the Scherzo was refreshingly different; more nocturnal mystery than elfin grace. The women of the Master Chorale were exceptional, as was soprano Laura Claycomb in the “You Spotted Snakes” number and the Finale.

It was no surprise to see the audience leap to its feet in a standing ovation at the close of the concert. But for once it was well deserved—and the sight of seeing the stooped figure Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos receiving the applause very moving.