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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana (1936) [60.18]
Maria Venuti (soprano), Ulf Kenklies (tenor), Peter Binder (baritone)
Hamburg Boys’ Choir, combined choirs of Niedersächsischen State Theatre Hanover
NDR Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand
rec. 1984, venue not stated

In the early 1970s Alan Bush remarked to me that the main reason for the popularity of Orff’s Carmina Burana with amateur choral societies was that it sounded modern and difficult to sing, and therefore impressed their audiences. This was a misleading impression for a work that demanded relatively little hard work from the choir. Since then the piece has found itself established firmly in the field of pop classics, thanks to the employment of a number of sections from the work in advertising and theme music. The fact remains that, despite Bush’s remarks, the piece is really not that easy to sing. Some of the high-lying passages lie well beyond the comfort zone of many amateur singers, and the patter-tongue diction required from the male voices in In taberna is of tongue-twisting difficulty in its demands for precise enunciation. In fact it seems fairly clear to me that Orff originally conceived the cantata with professional — or at the very least, semi-professional — singers in mind. The very first recording – a reissue of which I reviewed a couple of years back – made use of a decidedly small group who sounded undermanned in a balance that was the subject of very heavy microphone enhancement; not that this was the least of the problems with an unsatisfactory performance which the composer apparently – although inexplicably – approved.

Here we have a very sizeable chorus who also take over in Si puer cum puellula [track 18] specifically written for six solo voices. They are somewhat backwardly placed in a recorded balance which renders their lines sometimes indistinct, especially in the case of the male voices whose diction in In taberna [track 14] although clearly enunciated is nearly swamped by the orchestra. At the same time the somewhat resonant sound given to the voices is contrasted by what seems to be a dry-ish acoustic around the instruments. No recording venue is specified, but the overall sound seems rather artificial. There is in places a lack of sheer impact, most unfortunately of all in the crashing opening chord which hardly resonates at all. Otherwise the choral singing is impeccable both in fervour and enthusiasm. In fact Wand drives the score along quite quickly – which is fine in the more metrical numbers, but lacks the desirable sense of mediaeval timelessness in Veris leta facies [track 3]. The orchestral impact comes over well despite the close observation to which it is subjected, although some of Orff’s cheekier interpolations could be more clearly defined.

The soloists are somewhat of a mixed bag. Peter Binder is a fine baritone, who relishes passages such as Circa mea pectoral [track 18] and manages a delicate head voice in Dies, nox et omnia [track 16] even when one feels he could take a little more time over his traceries. He too is sometimes nearly covered by the orchestra, as in Estuans interius [track 11] and he plays very free with his declamation in Ego sum abbas [track 13].

As the roasted swan Ulf Kenklies sings Olim lacus colueram [track 12] properly in a tenor rather a counter-tenor voice – Orff does not specify the use of falsetto in the very high vocal line – but his concern for characterisation takes precedence over tone, and he has to snatch at the most extreme notes. Maria Venuti is generally very good, especially in a warmly felt In trutina [track 21] but her high notes in Dulcissime [track 23] lack the sense of pianissimo poise that one finds for example in singers such as Lucia Popp and Gundula Janowitz (in benchmark 1960s recordings conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Eugen Jochum respectively). Most unforgivably of all she finds the need to break her long sustained note towards the end of Amor volat undique [track 15] in the middle. Popp and Janowitz both demonstrate that this is unnecessary although many other sopranos do it. Once one has heard the passage as Orff wrote it any compromises are inevitably unwelcome.

This recording was made as long ago as 1984, but it does not appear to have been widely noticed at the time – it was, for example, never reviewed in the Penguin Guide. Although it would be perfectly adequate as a representation of this score in a collection it does not measure up to the more sheerly enjoyable Burgos or Jochum recordings, or indeed a number of others in the catalogues. Perhaps Wand is just a little too unbending in his approach, and this is not helped by the rather artificial-sounding recording. What effectively rules this reissue out of consideration, however, is the total lack of any booklet notes. The four-page insert merely repeats the track-listing from the back cover of the CD. In fact there would have been room for three pages at least outlining the plot of the cantata (such as it is) and giving some idea of the words. I suppose the sheer volume of words militates against the provision of complete texts and translations within the confines of a CD booklet insert, although some issues have managed it with the employment of very small type. Even so, the lack of this essential information is totally inadequate for purchasers encountering the work for the first time. We are not even given dates for the composer and the work, let alone details of the recording venue. I can’t really imagine anyone wanting more than one recording of Carmina Burana in their collection but even if they did there are better ones out there, quite a few of which come with additional music — more or less appropriate as the case may be.
Paul Corfield Godfrey