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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana (1936/1956)
Sarah Macliver, soprano; Paul McMahon, tenor; Jonathan Summers, baritone; Cantillation; Sydney Childrenís Choir; Synergy Percussion; Australian Virtuosi, conducted by Antony Walker.
Recorded October 2001, Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadcasting Corporationís Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia.
ABC CLASSICS 472 481-2


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Amateur choirs love Carmina Burana and itís not hard to know why. Music as rhythmic as this is difficult to resist, the notes themselves are not difficult to sing and there are quite a few opportunities to have a good old shout. Itís not quite so satisfying, I think, from the listenerís point of view. There are certainly passages where the musical material is spread rather thinly, and one or two numbers where a verse or two less would have been a good thing.

This recording from Australia is different from any other I have heard in that the work is given in the composerís own reduced version with accompaniment of two pianos and percussion. There are many parts of the work where the piano and percussion sound are so much part of the original version that we donít really miss the orchestra, and indeed two of the numbers are identical in the two versions. But the missing brass is a grievous loss in the final number of the Uf dem anger section, Were diu werlt alle min, and itís sad not to have, amongst other things, the soothing (or seductive) sound of the strings as they support the soprano soloist.

Whether or not the choice of version is important to you, what is indisputable is that this is a relatively small-scale performance. There are forty-three names listed as members of the choir, Cantillation, but there are only twenty of them on the accompanying photograph and the group sounds more like twenty strong than forty-three to me. Even recorded fairly closely, as here, there is inevitably a loss of sheer weight when compared to recordings with orchestra. Carl Rosman, in the accompanying note, tries to argue that the composer may well have preferred this approach. Others may find his evidence more convincing than I do, just as they may require more than "utterly straightforward, diatonic melodies" to justify the claim that Orff was influenced by Monteverdi in this work. Reduced scale or not, the choir is obviously a capable group and sings the work extremely well, and given their small number and trained voices they are able to avoid many of the intonation problems to which amateur choirs are sometimes prone, particularly in high lying, quiet passages for womenís voices. The Sydney Childrenís Choir likewise puts on a good show, with excellent intonation again a feature. A glance at the photo and list of members confirms, however, what listening to them seems to suggest: that classical music amongst the young is rapidly becoming an activity more and more limited to girls. The accompanying pianists and percussionist are excellent.

The famous roasted swanís aria is taken by a tenor, and very well he sings it too, though others have made it more grotesque whilst at the same time making us feel sorry for the beast. Sara Macliverís extremely clear and pure voice is well suited to the work and her arrival banishes the dark and rather foetid atmosphere of much that has gone before. Her stratospheric Dulcissime is beautifully done, so I find it a pity that singing not quite in the centre of the note mars my favourite number in the whole work, In trutina. The best of the soloists is Jonathan Summers. His singing is everywhere distinguished by a scrupulous attention to the text. He is excellent as the bibulous abbot, and his singing of Dies, nox et omnia creates a quite extraordinary sense of calm.

The conductor, Antony Walker, keeps everything well under control. In the identical opening and closing choruses he chooses to push the tempo forward at the moment the music suddenly becomes louder. Iíve never heard this done to this extent before and donít find it very effective.

Some years ago I sang in a series of Carminas in Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson. The performances were far from perfect but there was a wildness about them, a raw edge, a lack of inappropriate refinement, all of which was very convincing, at least from inside the choir. Something of his approach is preserved in his EMI recording with the Catalan choir Orféon Donostiarra, but there is very little of it in this Australian performance. The men are very sober as they bewail the poor abbotís fate, and when everyone sings "I am bursting all over! I am bursting all over with first love!" Iím afraid we just donít believe them.

The recording is fine, but with a few strange perspectives from time to time. The baritone soloist, in particular, seems to wander about a bit. And then in the seconds before the music starts we hear, in the left channel, a background hum as if something is not properly earthed. It is often barely audible, and in loud passages is not a problem in any case. It would be more of a nuisance through headphones, but whichever your preferred mode of listening I think you would find it troublesome in the many silences which punctuate, for example, the solo soprano and childrenís song Amor volat undique.

William Hedley

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