Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
1. Carmina Burana (1935-6) [60:26]
2. Catulli Carmina (1943) [36:35]
3. Trionfo di Afrodite (1950-1) [42:44]
Ruth-Margaret Pütz (1,2) Enriquetta Tarrés (3), Brigitte Dürrler (3) (sopranos); Michael Cousins (1), Donald Grobe (2, 3) (tenors); Barry McDaniel (1), Roland Hermann (1) (baritones); Hans Günter Nöcker (3) (bass); Der Tölzer Knabenchor (1)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. 1974, no exact dates or locations given
ACANTA 233584 [3 CDs: 60:26 + 36:35 + 42:44]
If you are looking for a modern demonstration quality recording of Carl Orff’s Trionfi - which includes the ever-popular Carmina Burana as one of its three parts - then walk on by and read no more. With that behind us this set certainly demands consideration as a reference-cum-historical document. These recordings were made in 1974 and have been variously released on CD since. In one incarnation on Arts Archive they proudly bore the legend; “Carl Orff’s authorised recording”. That imprimatur is noticeably missing on this new re-release - perhaps Orff has changed his mind from beyond the grave. He does seem to have been a composer willing to approve a performance pretty much at will - the famous Jochum/Deutschen Oper/DG was similarly adorned. That said, the presence of conductor Ferdinand Leitner on this set does add weight to the idea that this is an authentic account of Orff’s most famous works. Leitner was very much an Orff specialist - even a brief glance through the catalogue sees him at the helm of a wide range of Orff’s works. Their closeness is further demonstrated by the publication of a book of letters between the two men.
The three works that constitute Trionfi were written over a fifteen year period from Carmina Burana in 1935/6 to Trionfo di Afrodite in 1951. The umbrella name of Trionfi derives from the Roman word for festival or procession. The binding element - as note-writer Karl Schumann rather neatly and coyly puts it - is “the omnipotence of Eros”. As noted above Carmina Burana is the first and by far most famous of the three. It does seem to be one of those marmite works that provokes love or hate - and I do mean hate - in equal and opposite measure. Famously and in one fell swoop Orff discovered his mature and defining compositional voice with such certainty that he instructed his publisher to destroy all his earlier works. There is little need to go into a detailed discussion of such a familiar work but certain aspects of the recording here should be highlighted. Unfortunately, of the three works this receives the least impressive treatment musically and technically. Elements of the orchestra are curiously muffled which is particularly damaging when Orff’s throbbing trademark percussion ostinati are obscured and ill-defined. Leitner’s tempi tend toward the steady and cumulative rather than driven and ecstatic. At first I felt he was just ‘slow’ but actually I became more convinced that this was a viable - if not supreme - option. His male soloists are good. There is luxury casting in using two baritones although there is nothing in the liner to indicate who sings which passage. Tenor Michael Cousins sings the famous roasted swan role with much more heroic attack than one normally hears - which I rather liked. Soprano Ruth-Margaret Pütz appears in Catulli Carmina too. She was Klemperer’s Papagena in his recording of the Magic Flute. Pütz is rather good right up to that graveyard of sopranos, Ave formosissima - what should be lyrically ecstatic sounds simply forced. The chorus are good - especially the men who have a wholly appropriate gruff and earthy energy. This is a quality common to all three works and it is a consistent musical highlight. The Cologne Radio orchestra are competent but not exceptional - some ragged ensemble and sour wind intonation are present in a way that one feels would not be accepted in a studio today.
In a rather profligate way the three works are spread one to a disc. Most Trionfi sets combine Catulli and Trionfo. Certainly that could have been done here. However, at the bargain price point at which this set is being offered the extra disc is not an issue. Certainly there is no musical imperative for the second and third parts of the trilogy to run together. It does make the central Catulli Carmina a rather short disc at less than thirty-seven minutes. If Carmina Burana listed lust in Medieval times then Catulli, as the name suggests, uses texts by Catullus from before the time of Christ to catalogue impropriety Roman-style. Frustratingly this entire set contains no texts at all which is a bad omission regardless of price point; indeed given the narrative and wordy nature of the pieces this comes close to being a deal-breaker. Especially since not even a detailed synopsis is offered by way of compensation. The words findable on the web but it’s a far from ideal solution. From a musical point of view the novelty of the work is that it uses a percussion orchestra alone. Four pianos and much tuned percussion provide the melodic element of the instrumental score but the main interest lies in Orff’s expanded use - relative to Carmina Burana - of repeated rhythms and syncopation. Curiously, I never think of this as a ‘noisy’ work but the instrumentation - with its debt to Stravinsky’s Les Noces - imparts to it a pent-up nervous energy that remains strikingly modern. As to why it has never come close to challenging the earlier work in terms of popularity that, I suspect, has more to do with the cost of staging it offset against its lower audience appeal. Also, its length is problematic in concert terms - it is not even half a concert in time terms so quite how and where to put it in an evening’s entertainment? None of this is an issue for a recording. In every respect this is more consistently satisfying than the first disc. Here there are only two soloists taking the roles of Catullus himself and his demanding lover Lesbia. Pütz seems more secure and the interaction between her and tenor Donald Grobe has the right edge of danger and teasing. Again the chorus are characterful; better still the thirty-eight year old recording copes very well with the potential strain of so much percussion. Leitner is particularly good at keeping the music pulsating along without it feeling hard-driven or pushed; this is very much the sport of love. The final part of the triptych, Trionfi di Afrodite proves to be the best of the bunch as far as these performances are concerned. For those hankering after more in the style of the famous first part, movements such as the Invocazione dell'Imeneo [CD 3 tracks 4-5] have a primal pulsing rhythmic energy immediately recognisable from the earlier work. Orff reverts to a massive orchestration which must limit the number of live performances; triple wind, six horns, three each of trumpets and trombones and two tubas. Then it get really serious with a percussion section requiring ten to twelve players and - I'm not finished yet - two harps, three guitars and three pianos plus a large standard string section. Orff rarely unleashes the full instrumentation, indeed much of the work is characterised by the lightnesss of its orchestration. The size of the instrumental group allows Orff to create textures within instrumental families. Again Leitner impresses with the cumulative energy of his reading. It’s by no means fast but I was impressed by the carefully paced power. Compare this version to the much more recent cycle from Welser-Möst on EMI Classics. The latter sounds far more beautiful and indeed is better played and recorded but those qualities come at the cost of musical character. Leitner's soprano here is Enriqueta Tarrés. Hers is a name unknown to me but she is excellent; a real firebrand and more than a match for the impressive tenor Donald Grobe, mentioned previously. I listened to a third set of Trionfi on Supraphon conducted by Vaclav Smetacek as well. This set is older still than Leitner and again suffers from the fact that Carmina Burana is its weakest link. For recordings made in the sixties they still sound remarkably fine with as characterful instrumental and choral singing as one might expect. It can still be found - at a price but it would be hard to recommend ahead of the authoritative Leitner. As a complete cycle of three works the collector is not overburdened with choices - especially if requiring modern digital sound. The recordings by the aforementioned Welser-Möst are more controlled than these embodiments of abandonment surely demand. After that there is a set from Wergo which is DDD but features two different conductors. Aside from Leitner there is also a set on Berlin Classics from Herbert Kegel and an oldest-of-the-lot 1950s DG cycle from Jochum. None of those latterly mentioned sets have I heard in any degree. All of which means it is worth giving serious consideration to this current box on the assumption that a finer Carmina Burana already resides in your collection and you are happy to track down the texts. So in some curious way this set mirrors the music itself - fascinating yet flawed.
Mirrors the music itself - fascinating yet flawed.