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Carl ORFF (1895 – 1982)
Carmina Burana – Cantiones Profanae (1936) [61:31]
Patricia Petibon (soprano); Hans-Werner Bunz (tenor); Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Symphonieorchester und Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany, April 2010
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8778 [61:31]

Experience Classicsonline

Clearly somebody in the A&R department of Deutsche Grammophon sees Daniel Harding as ‘the next big thing’. If memory serves this is his second ‘big’ disc for this label and he is the centre of promotional attention. A rather moody Daniel Harding alone graces the cover of the booklet; pensively a Daniel Harding alone gazes from the rear cover of the booklet; an ecstatic Daniel Harding – surrounded by rather glum members of the Bavarian RSO – receives the applause on the back of the jewel-case. A sombre Daniel Harding stares out from page 10 of the liner – just in case we’d forgotten what he looked like somewhere between the cover and that point. Add a sticker on the front and a review quoted on the back – this is a live performance – stressing the insights available within and no analysis of the work instead a ‘conversation’ with – you guessed it – Daniel Harding and I think you’ll take my point. All of which rather makes one expect the extra-ordinary. I add the hyphen deliberately – such hyping serves little purpose and helps no-one; least of all the conductor who I would like to think is just a little uncomfortable with this degree of hagiography - although there’s not a great deal of Saintly behaviour to be had in Carmina Burana!

As to the performance of the work itself; well it’s perfectly good, very good at points but actually rather anonymous as a whole. The main plus points are the superb Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and well drilled chorus and a rich and detailed recording. Much of the tintinnabulous percussion-writing in particular is caught with thrilling clarity. The sticker on the cover tells us: “Gerhaher masterly...”. He is very good – his voice has a lighter lyrical lieder quality than many singers in this role. To my ear this has advantages and disadvantages. In the lyrical passages; Omnia Sol temperat [track 4] and the Cours d’Amours sequence [track 18 etc] there is stunningly beautiful singing. Conversely the earthier power required for Ecco sum abbas [track 15] finds him under-voiced which might explain why the DG website quotes critic Geoffrey Norris writing in the Daily Telegraph as follows; “the tenor Hans-Werner Bunz merrily bibulous in Ego sum abbas”[!?]. Light-voiced though Gerhaher may be he’s no tenor! Referring back to the sticker “Petitbon is wonderful…” Er, not to my ears she’s not. In fact if there was a deal breaker for me with this disc it is the unevenness of her singing. Some phrases are sung with light and simple elegance. But then a sudden dynamic bulge or flare of vibrato disrupts the line perversely. OK this is a live performance and percentages have to be played but her attack on the famous rapturous Dulcissime moment [track 25] is wrong musically and downright ugly; each syllable is scooped back up to and the final ascent to the high D is laboured. Rightly, it could be argued that this is the single dramatic moment to which the whole works points. What is Carmina Burana if not a celebration of all things primal and the soprano’s D represents the gaining of the ultimate bastion. Returning to the sticker for more helpful guidance; “Harding discovers the medieval immutable quality of Carmina Burana”. I have no idea what that means. Since the work was written in 1937 how can it be unchanged from something medieval since it did not exist then? Whilst I am in pedant mode let me return to the liner’s “conversation” titled “Magisterially Meretricious”. My dictionary defines ‘meretricious’ as either ‘having the nature of prostitution’ or ‘based on pretence, deception or insincerity’. Apparently this phrase has been used by baritone Christian Gerhaher to describe the work but Harding defends it saying it is simply ‘undeniably manipulative’. Not descriptions that fill one with confidence that this is these artists’ favourite work. Elsewhere Harding states the music of the ‘dying swan’ “has something incredibly visual about it”. Not one of the most profound or enlightening statements on Art of recent times but it rather did conjure up images of Pavlova in her tutu at a medieval banquet rather than the roasted swan of this work. Am I alone in finding these kind of sweeping statements allied to textual inaccuracy annoying?

Carmina Burana tends to be one of those works cursed by its own popularity. Many classical music collectors will dismiss it precisely because it is so popular. This is a mistake, I am sure. Whatever one might think of Orff’s limitations musically and expressively this is a work in a style he made uniquely his own. Perhaps what is most curious is how fully formed at the first attempt this style was. Orff wrote to his publisher Schott after the first performances were so well received that; "Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin." Central to the work’s success is the bubbling vigour and lust for life it exhibits. I would happily sacrifice great rafts of subtly shaded vocal colouration for simple energy and attack. No-one doubts for a second Harding’s skill as a conductor but all too often the chorus, for all the beauty of their sound and precision, do not sing as though their lives depended on it and the blame for that must lie with Harding. Likewise the Tölzer Knabenchor are accurate and articulate not the little devils the text would imply. Comparing timings and performing style with other versions in my collection this would not displace any of my preferred versions. Try Ormandy on Sony/CBS with the choir of Rutgers University for a group of young people palpably enjoying themselves. Or Barbara Hendricks on RCA with Eduardo Mata and the LSO for an ecstatically virginal Dulcissime. On the same recording the bass resonance of baritone Håken Hagegård gives extra authority as the Abbot. I even have rather a soft spot for the old Supraphon/Vaclav Smetácek which is available as part of the complete Trionfi trilogy. The Czech Philharmonic chorus is superb and the orchestra play with real character. For sure the recording is not a patch on the current version under consideration and soprano Milada Šubrtová verges on the ugly at Dulcissime but at least she has a totally different interestingly coquettish approach to this passage. But for a complete thrill-seeking roller-coaster ride on the wheel of fortune I still rate the EMI recording with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia above all others. It is indicative of an earlier happier time in the world of classical music recordings that the 1980 EMI catalogue already boasted two other market-leaders from Previn and the LSO and Frühbeck de Burgos and The New Philharmonia. The latter solved the ‘problem’ of the range of the baritone’s music by using two. However, Muti unleashes the earthy primal side of this work like no other. The Southend boys choir sings with a disconcerting degree of lustiness as do the Philharmonia choir. There is a brazen quality to the orchestral sound that I adore. Then, add a brilliantly pained swan from Jonathan Summers (Hans-Werner Bunz on this DG performance is unimpressive and unsteady at best), authority in abundance from baritone John van Kesteren and the ideal lyric soprano in Arleen Augér and this new recording is revealed for what it is – adequate and no more. Comparative timings show Muti two minutes or so quicker overall rather undermining the “lean, modern” claims of Harding’s version. There are a couple of movements that Harding pushes on – one being the Song of the Roasted Swan but this is not a matter of timings, rather the spirit and feel that drive the tempi. I see that EMI re-mastered this version in the late 1990s and I have read some reviews finding the dynamic range unacceptably artificial. My CD is of the original full price release on CDC7471002 and it sounds magnificent in all its late analogue glory. It can be found online for little more than £2.50 plus postage.

DG should focus their energies on promoting Harding in repertoire in which he is more at home and has more to offer. I have written elsewhere that the great is the enemy of the merely good. On this showing this recording has many enemies.

Nick Barnard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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