Top Ear

Blomstedt’s Orff deserves an ovation


Jeremy Lee writes

Needless to say, there are a huge lot of Carmina Buranas on the market–even too much–but the thing is that only very few make it to the top:  I’m thinking of Jochum (DG), Wand (Profil) and Welser-Möst/Rattle (EMI).  For all the score’s superficial straightforwardness, repetitiveness and lack of counterpoint, far too many recordings just lack the verve, lustiness, drama and dynamic contrasts that this work certainly cries out for.  Few performances make much of the repetitiveness by infusing something new to each reprise, and even fewer justify satisfyingly the cyclic nature of the poems that make this secular cantata structurally cohesive.

Blomstedt’s San Francisco recording on Decca certainly makes it to the top, and then some.  As we have heard from their Sibelius cycle, not to mention their incomparably perfect Brahms Requiem, the playing is absolutely first-rate, and the sound Blomstedt draws from both the orchestra and the choir combines the granitic solidity of Klemperer’s Philharmonia with the transparency of texture of a Boulez in Cleveland.  The speedy ending of the Fortune plango vulnera is a difficult passage to bring off, but here the San Francisco trumpets really steal the show with almost inhuman precision and evenness of tonguing.  The overplayed O Fortuna, too, showcases the percussion section in massive timpani and tam-tam crashes in “Hac in hora”, culminating in a resplendent rush to the finish.

As for Blomstedt, his control over the large forces is exemplary, and his pacing of the big numbers (for example, Ecce Gratum and Tempus est Iocundum) is just spot on.  He also bothers to manipulate tiny details during repeats (dynamically or texturally) to avoid them sounding like one or two repeats too many.  What’s more, the sensuality and excitement educed through such perfection and clarity has to be heard to believed.  There is just the right amount of vulgarity when required, and lustiness aplenty, but there are no attention-drawing gestures to be heard anywhere.

The soloists are more of a mixed bag.  John Daniecki’s roasted swan aria sounds painful enough (though Stanley Kolk for Ozawa/RCA, who utilises his full voice, is even more terrifying), and Lynne Dawson, who delivers a touching and sensitive In trutina, falls flat in Dulcissime, where her high notes are rather insecure.  I have no problems, however, with Kevin McMillan’s baritone, who really lives the words (notably “Oh! Oh! Oh! Totus Floreo!” and many others besides).  Decca’s clear and well-balanced sound does everyone proud.

It’s too bad that this recording is out of the catalog after around 20 minutes of existence, because this has to be one of the most, if not THE most, impressive Carmina Burana I’ve heard.  Certainly it’s the most impressive digital Carmina Burana (after all these 33 years of digital recording!), miles more interesting that the almost contemporaneous Previn/VPO (DG), and a perfect memento of what is in yours truly’s most humble opinion the most musically successful conductor-orchestra-record company partnership ever.  I cannot recommend this recording to anyone in the market for this work too highly.  One for the ages.


  • Album name:  Orff:  Carmina Burana
  • Performers:  Lynne Dawson (soprano);  John Daniecki (tenor);  Kevin McMillan (baritone);  Herbert Blomstedt (conductor);  San Francisco Symphony and Chorus
  • Label:  Decca 430 509-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  58:10

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

5 thoughts on “Blomstedt’s Orff deserves an ovation

  1. I will see your recommendations here, and raise you Donald Runnicles’ recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

    • Thank you John. I’ve heard a bit of Runnicles’ as well on Spotify and I find that his version is also very impressive, though in my opinion not as impressive as Blomstedt’s. Unfortunately I can’t find a physical copy of it–a Carmina Burana from Telarc will almost always be Shaw’s uninteresting version. Nevertheless I shall be vigilant in looking for Runnicles’.
      Jeremy Lee

  2. Apparently, Blomstedt’s Carmina Burana is now only available as part of a gargantuan (15-CD) set called Herbert Blomstedt: The San Francisco Years:

    However, for the out-of-print single disc it’s eBay to the rescue:

  3. If you don’t mind used discs you can find it at

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