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Carl ORFF (1895 - 1982) Prometheus (1968) [127.19]
Kratos (Power) – Josef Greindl
Hephaistos – Heinz Cramer
Prometheus – Roland Hermann
Oceanus – Kieth Engen
Io – Colette Lorand
Hermes – Fritz Uhl
Choir Leader – Edda Moser, Sophia can Sante, Raili Kostia
Womens Chorus of Westdeutschen Rundfunks
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Ferdinand Leitner
Recorded 1972, Stereo studio recording.
ARTS ARCHIVES 43007-2 [67.01 + 60.18]


For those listeners who know his work principally via Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s oeuvre can be tricky to appreciate. Not unlike Gustav Holst, who never tried to repeat the audience-pleasing success of The Planets, Orff never completely revisited the musical world of Carmina Burana. The musical concerns of that piece would continue to be important to him but he never again made a piece with such an intoxicating melodic feel. Instead, separate aspects of the music would be explored in a series of pieces, two more companions to Carmina Burana, a further trilogy of medieval based works, Lamenti, the fairy-tale operas Die Kluge and Der Mond and the trilogy of Greek dramas Antigonae, Oedipus der Tyrann and Prometheus.

In all these Orff explored, in different ways, his concerns with rhythm and speech patterns, writing music of high impulse power, frequently subjugating melody to rhythm, text and dynamic level. For me, supreme examples of how these concerns thread their way through his works is a series of rehearsals for Carmina Burana in which I participated during the 1970s under a pupil of Orff’s. For much of the time we rehearsed without pitch at all, simply using the text, rhythm and dynamics for their most expressive purposes. The result, at times, sounded remarkably similar to some of Orff’s less ingratiating works such as Prometheus.

Though Antigonae and Oedipus der Tyrann were written to German translations of the Greek plays, in Prometheus Orff sets the original Greek, taking extracts from Aeschylus’s Prometheus trilogy. The piece opens with a dramatic fanfare on the drums and then the whole of the first scene is taken up with the declaimed dialogue between Power (Josef Greindl) and Hephaistos (Heinz Cramer), during which Prometheus is bound to his rock. There is no pitch at all; the singers’ declaimed text is simply punctuated by fanfares of untuned percussion. The result demonstrates how expressive you can be with music written without any pitch.

From then on, the drama is concerned solely with Prometheus (Roland Hermann) who is chained to his rock in punishment at having given mankind fire. He is visited periodically by the Oceanides (female chorus) and by Oceanus (Kieth Engen). In the second half he receives a visit from mad Io (Colette Lorand) and is finally taunted by Hermes (Fritz Uhl). But mostly he speaks and sings great monologues. Here Orff explores the gamut of vocalism from declaimed spoken text to pure singing; when singing, the vocal line is often very close to Eastern rite chant. And the accompaniment is minimal, quite often forming punctuation points rather than supporting the voice. Though a full symphony orchestra is credited, the principal timbre that Orff uses is piano plus percussion (tuned and untuned), but this does not stop some of the orchestral outbursts being remarkably loud. With the repeated ostinati and frequent use of repeated chords, the snatches of instrumental music have a clear lineage from the composer’s own sanctioned piano and percussion version of Carmina Burana.

Orff manages to create a marvellously different series of timbres and textures; he is a true master of his own, very expressive but limited, sound world. Orff’s model seems to have been the original performances of the Greek plays where the choruses were sung and music played a large part. Though the solo parts are played by singers, they declaim the text more than they sing; the result is not so much opera as music theatre. The resulting sound-world has a remarkably modern feel, evoking music by Xenakis and Tavener and Stravinsky’s Les Noces.

The piece is not immediately ingratiating, Orff eschews the crowd pleasing gestures of Carmina Burana including its luxurious orchestration. But it is undeniably dramatic and every single gesture is subsumed into the service of the text. Cast, orchestra and chorus unite in giving a wonderfully confident and convincing performance. The singers, particularly, are impressive in the way they put over the Greek text, persuading you that they really do know what they are talking about.

In the title role, Roland Hermann is supremely impressive, embracing all of the multi-faceted role. He is well supported by the other men in the cast, Josef Greindl as Power, Heinz Cramer as Hephaestus, Fritz Uhl as Hermes and Kieth Engen as Oceanus. As demented Io, Colette Lorand delivers some truly blood-curdling cries; her voice hardens rather in the upper register which is probably perfectly suitable to the character. Lorand’s performance is truly fearless though her command of the Greek prosody is not as convincingly dramatic as the other members of the cast. The women’s chorus sing with a little too much vibrato and not enough clarity of line, making them sound, at times, rather too elderly.

A recording of the piece was issued on the Orfeo label, based on a live recording from 1975 made by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kublik in the presence of the composer. But this studio recording, made in 1972, is directed by Ferdinand Leitner who gave the first performance of the piece in Stuttgart in 1968. Interestingly the 1975 recording shares the same principals as this earlier recording, namely Heinz Cramer, Roland Hermann, Colette Lorand, Fritz Uhl, Josef Greindl and Kieth Engen.

The disc comes with a complete English translation of the libretto, though the lack of a transliteration of the Greek text means that one can only follow the text in a rather loose fashion. The informative article in the booklet seems to date from the recording’s original production and so fails to give us a view of Orff’s achievement seen with today’s eyes. The recording has been re-mastered well and comes over with clarity and a good dynamic range.

This is an impressively authoritative recording of one of Orff’s finest scores. Prometheus is certainly not an easy listen; but it deserves to be better known and I hope that this fine re-issue tempts more people into exploring the work.

Robert Hugill

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