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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana (1937)
Judith Blegen (soprano)
Hakan Hagegard (baritone)
William Brown (tenor)
Atlanta Boys’ Choir
Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Robert Shaw
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Atlanta, November 16-18, 1980
TELARC CD 80056 [60’29]

Orff’s phenomenally popular ‘scenic cantata’ is one of the most recorded works in the repertoire, with literally dozens of versions. The accepted ‘league table’ includes many great conductors, among them Jochum, Previn, Muti, Ozawa, Ormandy, Dutoit and Blomstedt and there is a strong supplementary list that includes Hickox, Mata, Slatkin, Thielemann and now Rattle. As Telarc continue their re-issues of Robert Shaw’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, it goes without saying that this Carmina enters the most crowded field imaginable.

I notice this version had a slightly muted reception first time round, at least in some critical quarters. Listening to it now, and by the side of selected competition, I can see why, although there are certainly things to enjoy. Shaw’s is one of the quickest versions on disc, only beaten by Jochum (57 minutes) and Dutoit (59 minutes). Personally, I like swiftish speeds in this piece, so that the many repetitions don’t become tedious. Also it should, and in some cases does, produce an extra tension and bite, especially in most of the naggingly memorable choruses. Alas, in Shaw’s version, many passages seem underpowered, despite the fast pulse. Take the famous opening, ‘O Fortuna’, which boasts some characteristically tight and disciplined choral singing, but which seems earthbound and metrically foursquare. And where is the great thwack on the tam-tam towards the climax, so clearly asked for by Orff (who marks it ff) and so apparent on Jochum and Muti’s versions? Given Telarc’s typically wide-ranging sound, I expected to be pinned back in my seat, but instead sat there underwhelmed. Maybe it’s Shaw’s decision not to vulgarise the work any more than is necessary, and Lord knows, we’ve all used this passage to demonstrate hi-fi to our friends. Whatever the case, it’s very tight and professional, but just a tad ordinary.

Other passages fare better. There is a great sense of abandon and jollity in ‘Ecce gratum’, and a thrilling climax to Part 2 ‘Were, diu werlt alle min’. But again, the brass do not blaze in ‘On the Lawn’ as they do for Muti, and the boys are nowhere near as suggestive in their ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, I am bursting out all over’ as Previn or Hickox’s boys, who leave us in no doubt as to their feelings.

The soloists acquit themselves well, considering the cruelly high tessituras Orff writes for all three. Hakan Hagegard went on to record this again for Slatkin and Mata, and invests all his solos with the right mix of vulgarity and refinement. William Brown is not as characterful as others (notably Gerhard Stolze for Jochum) in his famous ‘Roasted swan’ episode, but Judith Blegen soars majestically in ‘In trutina’ and is in ravishing voice in ‘Stetit puella’.

All told, I hoped for better things here. It’s ultimately all a bit too po-faced and polite, even though the choral singing is predictably superb and the recording deep and refined. The super-budget competition is exceptionally fierce, with Muti, Hickox and Mata all under a fiver and in equally good sound. Telarc also continue their annoying habit of banding the disc with a small number of tracks (four here) and lots of index points, which none of my three players can access individually. So maybe this is really only for fans of the conductor or label.

Tony Haywood

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