In 1937, following the performance of Carmina Burana,
Orff disowned all his previous compositions, though some were eventually
revised and restored. He then explained the unusual background to its
creation: 'Fortune smiled on me when she put into my hands a Würzburg
second-hand books catalogue, in which I found a title that exercised
on me an attraction of frankly magnetic force. It read 'Carmina Burana,
Latin and German songs and poems of a 13th century manuscript'.
On the front page he found the famous picture of 'Fortune
with her wheel', beneath which was printed the lines: 'O fortuna, velut
luna statu variabilis' ('O fortune, like the moon ever-changing'). This
gave him the inspiration to start his project. What he had stumbled
upon was a poetry of European stature, emanating from England, France,
Spain and Italy. This had been preserved in a monastery, but it is not
self-centred and confessional. Orff said, 'A special feature of the
music is its static construction. In its verse structure there is no
development. A musical formulation, once found, remains the same in
all its repetitions, and the effect depends upon the terseness of the
Although the primary conception had been to create
a work for the stage, in fact Carmina has become established into the
choral repertory of the concert hall. In this regard Orff's subtitle
makes an impressive point: 'Secular songs for solo singers and chorus,
with instruments and magical pictures.'
This live performance, recorded as long ago as 1988
in Mexico City, has much to commend it. To begin with, there is a real
sense of movement in the way that the eminent Latin-American Herrera
de la Fuente has performed the parts that make up the whole, and each
separate section leads the listener on and into the next. The orchestra
plays with sprit as well as discipline, with clear articulation and
tight ensemble, while the assembled choruses too display the fruits
of careful preparation. The audience, the booklet tells us, numbered
some 3000, and save for a very few individual contributions (thankfully
this was the era before the advent of the mobile phone) they were extremely
well behaved. Until the end, that is, when their enthusiasm could not
allow for the final bars of the music to finish.
Therefore one consideration for the prospective purchaser
of this CD is whether this intrusion will enhance the sense of occasion,
or whether it might become an irritation on repeated hearings. I have
to confess that for me it was an irritation at first hearing: if Orff
had intended audience participation he would have written it into the
score. But I admit that not everyone will share my Puritan view on these
things. It always irritates me whenever I go to the opera.
The soloists sing well enough, but they are not best
helped by the recorded balance. The soprano voice of Gabriela Herrera
sounds well in this particularly lyrical role, and the tenor Frank Kelly
copes as best he can with the fiendish falsetto of the roasting swan.
But poor Ben Holt, the baritone, who sadly died soon after this performance,
is placed far too backwardly in the perspective and he does make an
appropriate impact, being almost drowned out by the orchestra. He sings
well enough, with pleasing tone, but he cannot properly be heard.
In fact the recording is cut at a low level and needs
to be boosted to do justice to what is certainly a good performance
of the music. Once that is done there are rewards in plenty, though
for the reasons stated, this cannot be classed as a leading contender
in a crowded and competitive field.
Finally, a few words of praise to Guild for the quality
of their booklet. Too often companies sell their customers short in
this department, but here the print is admirably clear, with a sensible
layout which allows the reader to find all the important information.
And there are full texts and translations to accompany the excellent
introductory essay by Robert Matthew Walker.