An impressive team has been assembled for this CD of one of the most frequently recorded of choral works, Orff’s Carmina Burana, with its erotic texts safely couched in Latin and old German. This version comes from a live LPO concert given in April last year, and conducted by the Austrian Hans Graf. He had already recorded a strong reading of the work some years ago with the Houston Symphony and Choir. The orchestra and choir here are joined by soprano Sarah Tynan, swiftly making a big name for herself in an exceptionally wide repertoire, from Handel to Richard Rodgers. The two men are tenor Andrew Kennedy - in great voice, though sounding perhaps a little too healthy for a roasting swan - and the slightly throaty but appropriately macho Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov. This part is famously taxing, and Pogossov deals manfully – and rather beautifully – with its cruelly high tessitura.
The LPO Choir is in magnificent corporate voice, even though the balance places them well forward, tempting individual voices to protrude; that this hardly ever happens is a tribute to the quality of their blend. The women, who have some punishingly stratospheric writing to contend with, are clear-voiced, perfect of intonation, yet full of character and humour - when required. The first sopranos’ pianissimo top B, which comes twice in ‘Chramer, gip die varwe mir’ is a case in point – meticulous in timing and pitch, and ethereally soft.
The men are equally good, powerful and virile in such places as ‘Swaz hie gat umbe’, but producing a most seductively smooth sound in quieter moments like ‘Veris leta facies’ near the beginning. The great drinking song ‘In taberna’ is one riotous knees-up from beginning to end – marvellous.
Some of the most charming parts of the work are those featuring the children’s choir; the change from the end of the aforementioned drinking song to the beginning of ‘Amor volat undique’ is like coming out of a dark, smoky pub into the fresh clean morning air - no doubt Orff’s intention - and Trinity Boys Choir are perfect musical ‘putti’. Their contributions elsewhere are just as effective.
Naturally the orchestra is so important in the colouring of this work. The percussion, so much a part of Orff’s characteristic sound-world, are on the whole captured brilliantly, for there is much important detail. I would however have liked to have been more aware of the deep tam-tam strokes in the opening chorus.
A word for the bassoon soloist in the ‘barbecued swan’ number, ‘Olim lacus colueram’; Orff is rather unkind, for the rest of the work has little in it to worry the bassoons; then out of the blue comes this horrendous solo. It portrays the squeaking of the poor bird as it turns on the spit – not a pretty image – and I’ve rarely heard it played more comically and characterfully than here. The player is presumably by Gareth Newman, the orchestra’s principal since 2008.
The recording is, on the whole, highly successful, given the difficulty of taking live concerts. One number is a slight disappointment, and it happens to be almost my favourite in the whole work. This is the soprano solo ‘In trutina’; firstly, Sarah Tynan, so terrific everywhere else, sounds, to me, a little too sophisticated for the nature of this song. It’s about a young girl ‘in the scales’ between childhood and adulthood, and Orff has deliberately made it touchingly simple, naïve even. The other problem is that the accompaniment, strings and horns, is pretty well inaudible; it has to be very soft, but it needs to be palpably there. It made me realise that, in general, the upper strings have had a little bit of a raw deal when it comes to balance.
Nevertheless, this is a superb issue; it captures afresh the sheer exuberance and colour of this over-performed work. Graf steers the whole thing masterfully, giving it huge momentum when required, but relaxing to allow the poetry of the quieter moments to register fully. It’s highly competitive, as there are so many outstanding recordings out there. I still cherish the great Eugen Jochum DG version from the 1960s, complete with Fischer-Dieskau and Janowitz, and there are fine recent versions by Alsop on Naxos, or David Hill on Virgin. This, however, is a real contender; it’s a recording of a live concert, and it made me feel ‘I so wish I’d been there’; what greater praise can there be?