The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the French Revolution and its repercussions created a new "sixth sense" in Western perception: People began to view themselves not in relation to nature, but to history. On Friday, the Cantata Singers and their music director, David Hoose, performed works reflecting that shift, filtered through 20th-century prisms of war and oppression.
This season, the group is surveying the music of Kurt Weill. Friday's offering (apart from solo songs, performed cabaret-style before the concert and during intermission) was a modest rarity, the Boston premiere of "Die Legende vom toten Soldaten" ("The Legend of the Dead Soldier"), a 1929 ballad with words by Bertolt Brecht, an acidulous story of a soldier, killed in battle, dug up and pronounced fit to serve. Weill laces the declamatory texture with subtly pungent chords; the unaccompanied choir snapped off the German diction with tough clarity, but woolly intonation kept the harmonies just out of focus.
Luigi Dallapiccola composed his "Canti di prigionia" ("Songs of prisoners") to protest racial laws in fascist Italy. Setting texts by the Catholic monarch Mary Stuart, the philosopher Boethius, and the Florentine zealot Girolamo Savonarola, Dallapiccola's gorgeous compositional voice mixes sugar-crystal sounds, 12-tone chromaticism, plainchant (the "Dies irae"), and vocal lines of unabashed Italianate expressiveness.
Joined by two pianos, two harps, and percussion, the singers couldn't find enough sweep to balance the austere, tolling accompaniment: They delineated the sinuous phrases with excessive caution. But even at an interpretive distance, Dallapiccola's solemn ritual captured the congealed terror of detention.
Carl Orff's familiar "Carmina Burana" was a post-intermission contrast, both in terms of circumstance (Orff composed the piece during a shadowy accommodation with the Nazis) and philosophy. Cycles - of harmony, of history, of fortune - pervade the songs. Seasons change; luck turns; a roasting swan (tenor Rockland Osgood, soaring with liquescent resignation) revolves on a spit, cursing fate. Everybody is buffeted by external forces - baritone David Kravitz, wheedlingly entertaining, rationalized his debauchery by claiming to be a wind-tossed leaf, while, with glimmering tone, soprano Janet Brown lamented her morally precarious, love-struck mind.
The music's clockwork aspect was magnified in Orff's arrangement for, again, pianos, harps, and percussion. Along with the PALS Children's Chorus (who brought an incorruptible timbre to their mischievously bawdy texts), the choir, with a controlled abandon missing from the first half, reveled in the surrender of responsibility: for Weill and Dallapiccola, history was something that people do to other people, but for Orff, it was something that happens to you. You can't change the course of the world, he claims; you might as well enjoy the ride.