Jeremy Lee writes
Orff’s You-Know-What: to many, all you have to do is mention the composer Orff to a casual classical music lover and immediately you will get one of two responses: Carmina Burana, or O Fortuna. In fact Carmina Burana (which is, to those of you who don’t know better, the name of the complete work that begins and ends with O Fortuna) has enjoyed more or less a similar position in the composer’s body of works with Pachebel’s You-Know-What: an overplayed piece in the body of unheard-of works by a composer who is generally less famous than his magnum opus. Yet you can’t blame Carmina Burana for achieving the popularity it has at present. It text is suggestive and worldly, its musical language direct and easily accessible–not unlike most recent pop songs, in fact. Probably due to popular demand (from audiences, not from musicians–many are reported to hate the work), there are umpteen Carminas on the market, and possibly due to its notoriety in musical circles not many have actually put their entire heart and soul in recording their take on it, resulting in a surprisingly large number of uninteresting or just plain bad recordings. So as a labor of love for this music, as well as consumer advice for all of you, I have sat down to listen to a large number of recordings and have picked my way through the ones I find most convincing, for your reference. Here we go…
This classic recording, authorised by Carl Orff himself, has never disappeared from the catalog since the day it was released. Orff was right to authorise it, because it is an extremely joyful and rustic performance with some magnificent soloists. Janowitz’s golden and bone-shiveringly concentrated tone makes her few ravishing solos in Cors d’Amour very memorable (though I would prefer a far more relaxed tempo for In Trutiana), and her supreme tonal and vibrato control never falters even in the highest notes of Dulcissime. Fischer-Dieskau’s naturally gorgeous tone graces the more lyrical numbers (e.g. Omina Sol Temperat), and while he occasionally goes over the top in the tavern scene, sacrificing tone quality (and his “bark” has garnered criticism) it is arguably appropriate given the narrative of wildness and drunkenness. Jochum paces almost all the sections perfectly (besides that rushed In Trutiana) and the Deutsches Oper Berlin orchestra plays well but with occasional unsteadiness especially in the brass. Meanwhile the choir is also accomplished, and the children’s choir could not have sounded cuter. If I had one wish it was for a bit more weight in the climaxes, such as the smashing O Fortuna which I believe could be rendered with a heavier hand. But otherwise this is easily one of the best performances of this difficult work and deserves its classic status.
This is one of the most oft-recommended performances of this work, widely heralded as a classic, but on a purely technical sense (and some interpretative ones as well) it’s hard to see why. For one, the orchestra and choir hasn’t the best discipline (many examples for this–the syncopations in Ego sum abbas, the brass fanfare that starts Were diu welte alle min, some bits of In taberna quando sumus etc), the choir’s singing is fine but not outstanding, and the recording is a bit muddy. What you do get is the dark, slightly opaque sonority of the Boston Symphony, some pretty decent singing (Stanley Kolk’s strangulated goose is a joy), and fresh if slightly stodgy and occasionally foursquare conducting from Ozawa. In all I can only recommend this half-heartedly, and wonder what is it in this recording that others hear that I have missed. And I might be the minority here, but I feel that his Berlin Philharmonic remake (of which I will not review in detail) is much more successful in capturing the spirit of the music, and both the recording quality and the playing is superior (if not the singing). Discuss, discuss!
Yet another pseudo-classic. I suppose the only truly outstanding thing I have spotted out from this recording is the excellent playing of the London Symphony Orchestra; everything else is pretty much average, from the bland soloists (is this the most elated state that Allen can muster?) to Previn’s measured and plodding direction, in which he basically disregards every opportunity to speed up even when Orff explicitly says so. Not as bad as his remake with the Vienna Philharmonic, but you can do much better.
The modern classic
It’s pretty hard to believe that it’s been more than a year since I reviewed this album individually here, but it’s even harder to believe, after listening to so many recordings after this (which is, incidentally, my first disc of Carmina Burana), how this recording still holds up so well. I still insist that the sonics are probably the best of any Carmina I’ve heard, and Blomstedt’s unfailingly musical, perfectly paced yet terrifically exciting direction, achieving a perfect balance of elegance and vulgarity, not to mention the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus’s impeccable playing and gorgeous sonority, makes it logically the most accomplished Carmina I’ve ever heard. If there is any fault at all with this performance, it lies with the soloists. Dawson loses control of her voice in the highest registers, and McMillan, though pretty lusty in Tempus est iocundum, delivers short of passion in the tavern scene. You can ignore that small fault: if you want a near-perfect Carmina that isn’t so perfect it borders on disgustingness, this is it. A modern classic, without a doubt.
One of the most original aspects of Orff’s ever popular score is how he manages to blend archaic elements (late Renaissance influenced melodies, deceptively simple harmonic progressions) with modernistic, even futuristic elements (incisive orchestration, repetition, minimalism). If you want the modern side of the music amplified, Tilson Thomas is your man. He has the impeccably disciplined and transparent Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus at his disposal, playing and singing with surgical precision, and the way they manage to hang on so precisely to Tilson Thomas’ wide fluctuations in tempo left me in awe not only at their stunning responsiveness but also the oppressively mechanical side of the music that they manage to highlight. Has there been a better trio of soloists? I highly doubt it. Judith Blegen sings with arousing abandon in her solos (note the way she throws off the rising intervals of Stetit puella), and her ability to sustain that ridiculously long vowel at the end of Amor volat undique, while most other sopranos just give up mid-vowel, is fascinating. Peter Binder is a prime example of how some soloists are more than willing to give up their tone for sheer exhilaration, because that’s what he delivers. Observe his hedonistic and marvellously unpredictable take on Ego sum abbas to know what I mean. Kenneth Riegel’s short solo is delivered not particularly outstandingly but still very musically. Sony’s sonics give a very artificial perspective but is otherwise highly listenable. Fantastic!
If you want a more recent performance in the same vein as Tilson Thomas’ performance (recorded in 1974), consider this, one of Rattle’s most successful recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle, a percussion player by training, gives particular emphasis to the percussion section, and my golly they play out proudly! He also gives a generous amount of prominence to the lower brass which gives an incisive and slightly vulgar edge to their furious syncopations in In taberna quando sumus which is not at all inappropriate. Best of all, Rattle’s tempi never plod (some say they are too fast), and the rhythmic verve that he manages to generate out of the orchestra is very refreshing. Regarding the orchestra, gone is the luxurious sheen of its previous self in Ozawa’s Philips remake; here is a transparent, much more rhythmically robust profile, to my taste much more suitable to Carmina Burana because it does more justice to Orff’s colorful orchestration. The transparency of the textures, as well as the extreme clarity and precision even at the highest speeds Rattle takes, is what makes it sound like a modern counterpart to Tilson Thomas’ to me–mechanical and unrelenting. As for the soloists: Gerhaher is exceptional, as he always is, and the same goes for Brownlee. Sally Matthews, however, has a wide vibrato that puts me off. The choir is obviously very well drilled and they sing with complete confidence and conviction. Unquestionably one of the best modern performances.
If you want a Carmina Burana that views it as a flashy sonic spectacular (which it undoubtedly is), try Muti’s, whose primary attraction is the Philharmonia Orchestra that plays so brilliantly you could have mistaken it for the Philadelphia Orchestra (as I have, on a few occasions). The brass almost completely steal the show with their effortless technical showmanship, giving us some excellent tuba playing in O Fortuna as well as the most ebullient Were diu welte alle min I have ever heard, but the percussion are also very responsive and weighty, and the strings sound suitably massive. Auger’s soprano is seductively smooth, while van Kesteren’s baritone is slightly narrow and reedy, and the choral singing is very fine. It’s not only one of the most exciting performances there are, but also a bargain at this price. Unfortunately it seems that this recording is out of print now, so if you want a great performance at a low price which also happens to be in print…
The in-print bargain
…look for this, Welser-Möst’s recording on Red Line. Welser-Möst is not usually a terribly interesting conductor, and his interpretation here is not as exciting as Muti’s nor as musical as Blomstedt’s, but the chief attraction here is the terrific playing of the London Philharmonic, with heavy-handed percussion playing (note the unusually audible tam-tam) and some very fine contributions from the lower brass, especially the excellent tuba which billows like a foghorn at the end of Ego sum abbas. Hendricks’ singing is typically beautiful, and the two male soloists handle their parts with great aplomb; same goes for the choirs. A very good performance at any price.
The soprano soloist
Mehta’s rhythmic and well-paced direction, the London Philharmonic’s excellent playing, and the male vocalists’ and choir’s professional singing largely falls by the wayside. Sumi Jo is the cover girl here, and she is unquestionably the very best soprano I have heard in this work. Her basic tone is light, pure and seductive, her vibrato sparse yet rapid. Yet she is more than willing to sacrifice that tone for sheer lasciviousness, such as the uncommonly freewheeling Stetit puella. And in Dulcissime she shows off her effortless technique and vocal control, not least in that exquisitely soft high D that she hits spot on. Pretty fantastic stuff here.
For all its apparent simplicity, Carmina Burana is a very tricky work to pull off. Technically, while the rhythmic patterns are pretty simple, the leeway for imprecision really is very small, and therefore it takes a highly concentrated orchestra to get all of the rhythms right; musically, it takes an alert ear to clear up the textures and balances in Orff’s exquisitely planned orchestration, to say nothing of getting the lusty spirit of the work. For one reason or another an atypically huge number of duds have surfaced, in my opinion much greater than most other similarly popular works, and thus I won’t be bothered to mention them all in detail: Thielemann/DG (very sloppy playing and clogged textures), Harding/DG (spiritless), de Burgos/Philharmonia/EMI (a so-so performance in bad sound), Dorati/RPO/Decca (as above), Dutoit/MSO/Decca (generally undercharacterized though the playing is splendid), Ormandy/Philadelphia/Sony (plodding conducting, inaudible percussion–and what is that noise that ends Ego sum abbas?), K. Jarvi/MDR/Sony (nothing special after an extremely impressive O Fortuna), Shaw/Atlanta/Telarc (great choral singing and nothing more), and Hickox/LSO (just plain boring). But from this lot of duds there are some particularly disappointing ones that I believe deserve singling out for particular criticism:
James Levine’s recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is actually fundamentally very similar to Blomstedt’s recording: fairly moderate pacing, excellent playing, singing and recorded sound. In some aspects, particularly the soloists, Levine’s recording is more preferable. So what is it that makes Blomstedt’s overall infinitely superior to Levine’s? Firstly, while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays very well as mentioned, it is just way too polite: the lower brass doesn’t belch and fart their way through the tavern scenes, and the percussion is a bit reticent when it needs to play out. Just compare and contrast the two’s O Fortunas to see what I mean. Same goes for the soloists: they are technically excellent–it couldn’t be otherwise, given the starry cast–but convey the music’s wide range of vulgar emotions they do not. Most disappointingly, Levine is pretty insensitive to minutiae in the score, be it in terms of tempo, texture or colors, and his conducting is undramatic and dispirited throughout. Like the soloists he seems unwilling to get dirty when the music requires. Sure, there are brilliant moments–Were diu welte alle min is executed with the virtuosity that only the Chicago brass could deliver–but the overall impression is that of a routine performance. Disappointing, given how Levine can be so dramatic and exciting at times.
This is less of a dud than a nadir. Previn’s direction was already pretty unsensational in his first recording with the LSO–here it’s even worse! Gone is the youthful charm that still remained (no matter how small the amount) with his first attempt, here is a depressingly lumbering, uninterested plod through music of vim and vigor. There are numerous imprecisions in the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing, and while the sound they make is intrinsically beautiful the sloppiness is just unbearable. Generally fine singing does nothing to help the situation. An old man’s Carmina Burana is what this is–though, as we shall discover later, just because the conductor is old doesn’t mean the rendition has to be.
The unjustly neglected
This 1983 recording probably enjoyed a shelf life roughly equal to the length of the work, but it doesn’t deserve to. Chailly’s interpretation is very fresh and rhythmic; his scrupulous attention to detail and ear for texture is evident in small details unheard anywhere else (such as the accentuation of the downbeats in the last utterance of “iam amore virginali” in Tempus est iocundum). The soloists are all quite fine; Stephen Roberts has a thin and lyrical tone that perhaps lacks sheer power in places like Ego sum abbas, but he seems to revel in the erotic pleasures of Tempus est iocundum very much, which is all to the good. Orchestral and choral execution is exemplary. Not one of the greatest Carmina Buranas perhaps but it surely is memorable and deserves more attention.
My heart-over-head favorite
Gunter Wand was over 70 when he conducted this live performance of Carmina Burana with the NDR Symphony Orchestra–probably the oldest conductor to have done so in my roster. However, like Backhaus in his evergreen recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Wand must have been touched by–ahem–the Wand of Youth (terrible pun, I know), for he conducts what is an exceptionally youthful-sounding performance, full of life and youthful impetus. For someone who is often described as a Kappelmeister conductor (thereby implying, intentionally or otherwise, that he is bland and boring at times), the fact that Wand never once loses the spirit of the music is particularly astonishing. Observe the sheer sonic power of his harrowing O Fortuna(s), the way he unleashes torrents of vulgarity in In taberna, or the way he coaxes the long lines of Cors d’Amor patiently, gently and seductively–this is a hormone-infested performance, and to think that a septuagenerian is at the helm! (Young lads such as Previn (in the 1970s) should take note…) Wand’s youthful conducting, however, does not come at the expense of musicality–quite far from it. Always one of the most natural and musical conductors, Wand scrupulously adheres to Orff’s markings, be it in the various tempo changes, carefully graded dynamic markings, or the way the music is notated (the offbeat repeated figures in the xylophone and trombone immediately after the tenor finishes his first phrase (at the end of “colueram” in the first round) has seemingly been misinterpreted in all the other renditions I have heard–only Wand bothers to rectify this). He also has some interesting ideas on how to interpret the more ambiguous markings, all of them musically valid: for example, how he slows down “Octies pro fratribus perversis” in In taberna so that it trails off in drops of snare drum and muted trumpet, and how he drops the accompaniment, leaving the soprano to take her time to finish her phrase in In trutina. Yet for all the brainy-ness, Wand’s pacing is always flexible and flowing (he wisely skims through the ecstatically noisy Ave formossisima at the end–such a mass of noise in most other performances!–and paces it so that it seamlessly (both in terms of tempo and mood) leads to the concluding O Fortuna), his transitions impeccably judged, his sense of fun omnipresent. This is great conducting, folks, pure and simple. May I also point out the excellent trio of soloists whom are unparalleled in terms of sheer passion. Maria Venuti is as good a soprano as any available, with a silky tone and great technique, but she’s not the main point. Tenor Ulf Kenklies has problems reaching that high D in his solo, but I think a concession can be given to his lack of technique as his failure to do so highlights the struggle of that roasted goose even more vividly than usual. Best of all is Peter Binder, who also appears in Tilson Thomas’ recording and whose contribution I praised very highly in my review above. He was pretty over the top then–imagine how he does in a heat-of-the-moment live concert situation! Terrifically outrageous doesn’t even begin to describe him. In Estuans interius he disregards the pitch of his accented notes, instead opting to spit them out with the greatest vehemence he can muster, and at the very end “cutis” he basically throws the whole concept of rhythm out of the window, sustaining an astounding high A while the orchestra frenetically flies through the coda. Circa mea pectora’s final reiteration, marked “molto appassionato”, is delivered with astonishing lasciviousness, to the extent that the final phrase “reserassem vincula” is spat out with the most venomous barbarousness imaginable. Best of all (and the place where Binder can shine the most) is in Ego sum abbas: raise an example of anyone executing “quid fecisti sors turpissima” with greater ferocity and agony and I shall have my ears sliced off. Maybe some people will dislike his outrageous delivery, yet I can only say that this is what you get on the spur on the moment, that this is hardly inappropriate given that the text is similarly outrageous anyway, and that this certainly is a prime example of risk-taking in concert. Meanwhile the NDR Symphony Orchestra delivers terrific playing: responsive, alert, virtuosic (especially the brass), and it’s audible that every member of the orchestra is enjoying him or herself as much as Wand and the soloists. There are imperfections that are few and far between and which simply do not matter given the live provenance and the exhilaration of the moment. The choir is similarly spirited, and in terms of intonation or sheer beauty it is one of the best I have heard in this work. All this tremendous inspiration is captured in good quality archival radio sonics. While you have all the reason to prefer the more Apollonian performances of Blomstedt or whomever’s recordings I have recommended above, I would certainly take this thrillingly inspired and at times unhinged Dionysian reading over them any day, and deem it as my absolute favourite recording, one I would choose with the heart over the head. I dearly hope you will love it too–all you have to do is to listen.
In terms of my ultimate verdict there is not much to conclude; I have not heard many other versions of this work however, and there is no guarantee that Wand will remain my all-time favourite (though I would say it’s pretty hard to beat). Still, as always, this review is never intended to be exhaustive. As a final word, if you love this work, never be satisfied with only one perspective: get a handful of recordings and discover, through comparing and contrasting, the wonderful genius of Orff in his magnum opus. Happy listening!