When Edinburgh-born Donald Runnicles had completed
his basic training and needed to get experience he found himself, as
far as Great Britain was concerned, in a Catch-22 situation. How do
you get experience? By starting as a repetiteur and working up gradually.
Who would take him on as a repetiteur? No-one because he lacked experience.
So off he went to Germany where they do things differently. Now in his
late forties he has a terrific reputation in Germany and Austria as
well as the United States, yet remains relatively unknown in the UK.
Evidently we are not as globalised as we thought. Perhaps his forthcoming
Proms performance of Gurrelieder will change things. In all truth,
some one-off appearances have been disappointing – he failed to capture
the sympathy of Milan’s temperamental La Scala orchestra, for example
– but the glowing reports of his achievements from both sides of the
Atlantic cannot all be wrong.
Carmina Burana is not by its nature a piece
to show off a conductor’s subtler sides and a cynic might say the noisier
it is the better. Yet Runnicles does succeed in establishing a performance
with a character of its own. I was struck at first by the extreme care
with which the ostinatos are enunciated, bright and alive without being
thrashed, and by his very alert ear for the orchestral timbres in the
quieter movements. If there is one aspect I remember above all others
it is the vernal freshness of the spring sections. This is not the most
euphoric performance of Carmina Burana you will have heard, but
it is one whose timeless, static qualities (in spite of much incidental
vivacity) are wholly in tune with Orff’s stated concerns.
Unfortunately the bright focus of the orchestra is
not quite matched by the choir, which seems very slightly woolly. This
is not, I think, Runnicles’ fault since the actual precision is excellent.
It seems to be a mixture of the chorus-master’s preferred form of voice
production and a recording which close-mikes the orchestra (was the
microphone actually inside the big drum?) and lets the choir fend for
The cruel high writing for the two male singers sounds
no more ingratiating than it usually does – a brave stab at the near-impossible
– and I would add that both singers have a fairly wide vibrato in their
"normal" range, which not all will welcome. However, in the
soprano Hei-Kyung Hong the disc scores a definite plus-point – one of
the few who can make even Dulcissime sound effortless and actually
On account of these small points this recording does
not quite join the very top of the list – this is a much-recorded work
– but it does have a definite character and leads us to hope that recordings
from Runnicles will be more regular events in the future than they have
in the past.