Next to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” — an enormous oratorio with two choruses, three vocal soloists, a gigantic orchestra and a full battery of percussion, including two pianos — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 is just a wee little thing. With its nod back to Haydn and eerie premonitions of Mahler, it is one of the wildest and most exquisite works Beethoven ever wrote. But it is woven of the smaller musical virtues: wit, craft and finesse.
The National Symphony Orchestra, playing under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on Thursday night, paired the Beethoven with the Orff, which felt a bit like putting the Parthenon next to Hoover Dam.
De Burgos, a veteran conductor and former principal guest conductor of the NSO, is a master of the essential skills of the visiting musical traffic cop: the ability to shape the raw stuff of music into something coherent, to put a few finishing touches on the job, and to maintain a genial relationship with his players that doesn’t seem to tax anyone too hard. Under that regime, works such as the Orff sound just about as good as they do anywhere else, but works such as the Beethoven suffer.
The Beethoven also suffered Thursday as a curtain raiser to the Orff. De Burgos has good taste, and every gesture was musical. The flick-of-a-fan ending of the first movement, a coy, retiring gesture, was perfectly done. The second movement was full of genteel, ancien regime humor, and the minuet was robust but never crude. Tempos in the outer movements generated excitement.
Yet details were lost. In the opening of the development section, the woodwinds pass a little turning motif up the line, softly and sweetly. In a polished performance, those gestures grow organically from one another. On Thursday, they felt like mechanical echoes, as if no one was listening to anyone else. The horns and clarinets have a similar do-si-do in the middle section of the third movement, and yet here, too, it felt as if there was a mere sequence of ideas rather than a conversation.
Those niceties, absent in the Beethoven, would be out of place in the Orff. It is a crude work, effective and memorable, with the chorus singing much of the time in blunt unison or simple parallel motion. Based on Latin, old French and old German poems, it is a mid-1930s exercise in faux medievalism, a dismal preoccupation of Nazi Germany, where Orff managed his affairs nicely.
Often it is no more interesting than a well-arranged medley of antique Christmas carols. The best bits, including the thunderous declamations of “O Fortuna” that have launched a thousand car commercials, are few and far between.
The Choral Arts Society and the Children’s Chorus of Washington did most of the work, the latter with an endearingly pure and direct sound, the former with gusto, precision and occasionally strained tone in the upper reaches of the sopranos and tenors. The adults declaimed the Latin with meticulous — perhaps too meticulous — drill-sergeant clarity, sometimes so clipped that it didn’t even sound like language. But the rapid-fire exchanges between the men and the women were well rehearsed, and their pianissimo tone is full, well supported and warm.
Soprano Laura Claycomb had all the notes and the sweetness to carry off her miniature showpiece, “In trutina,” but it felt uneasy. Her clarion top in “Dulcissime” was spine-tingling. Tenor Nicholas Phan sang with a full-bodied tone into the falsetto range of his demanding and tiny solo, “Olim lacus colueram,” and he caught the humor of the poetry, which often feels like mere scaffolding for musical billboards.
Baritone Hugh Russell also caught the bawdy spirit of things, though he sounded labored during faster passages. The operatic moments of “Estuans interius” gave glimpses of a strong, focused and appealing voice.
The NSO still needs discipline and attention to ensemble. The percussion section deserves high marks, and individual wind players are clear assets. But a lack of care, of love, marks too much of the playing. One can understand a certain professional diffidence when forced to the play the Orff — but the NSO can make the Beethoven sound better than this.