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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana (1935) [63:40]
Yeree Suh (soprano)
Yves Saelens (tenor)
Thomas Bauer (baritone)
Collegium Vocale Gent
Cantate Domino/David De Geest
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
rec. live, 19-20 February 2014, Concertgebouw Brugge, Belgium
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from Qobuz
Pdf booklet with sung texts and translations and artwork included

Time to 'fess up, I actually like Carmina Burana; having recently reacquainted myself with Antal DorŠti’s version – produced by the great Kenneth Wilkinson – I’m happy to admit to liking the piece even more. Ubiquity has done Carmina Burana no favours, and too many dull recordings haven’t helped. Among the latter are very disappointing performances from Richard Hickox and Paavo Jšrvi. The good news is that the catalogue is crammed with good 'uns, among them Jochum’s classic DG version and Blomstedt’s San Francisco one (Decca Universal).

Given that there are so many good Carmina Buranas about, do we really need another one? Well, yes, especially if it casts new light on a work whose gentler virtues are often subsumed by big, pile-driving performances. The Belgian conductor Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna already have a reputation for reinvigorating familiar repertoire, including Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the waltzes, polkas and overtures of Johann Strauss. Such reappraisals court controversy, but there’s no doubting the care and enthusiasm that has gone into these recordings.

That’s evident in the Immerseel interview reproduced in the booklet, where he speaks candidly about his admiration for Carmina Burana, and his desire to present it in a way that distinguishes it from its loud, boisterous predecessors. To that end Anima Eterna play on pre-war instruments and the choral forces – 36 singers in all – are much smaller than usual. It doesn’t stop there, for Immerseel’s choice of soloists reflects his view of how they – and the work as a whole – should sound. The impressive 64-page booklet, meticulously annotated, puts the finishing touches to what is a carefully considered and very well planned package.

So, how does it sound? In a word, revelatory. Those who feel reduced forces can only result in a strained-through-the-sheets performance will be pleasantly surprised by the taut, crisply accented account of the work’s opening invocation. There’s no lack of weight here, and the oriental-sounding gong adds a dash of spice to the proceedings. The bass drum and percussion – powerful but not overpowering – are simply sensational, and the spacious, detailed recording captures that elusive sense of a live event. Apart from a few minor stage noises there are no audible compromises and the audience is commendably silent.

Even at this stage it’s clear we’re in for a treat. Orff’s instrumental colours have seldom glowed with such lustre, or his rhythms seemed so infectious. The singing is just as remarkable, for what the choruses may lack in sheer numbers they more than make up for in fine articulation and a rare sensitivity to the texts. According to Immerseel he wanted just the right Bavarian accents, which confirms yet again how thoroughly this project has been planned and executed. Veris leta facies is startling in its tactility and the nicely distanced chorus sing with real feeling. The simple, punctuating accompaniment has never sounded so discreet yet so vividly resonant.

Baritone Thomas Bauer’s Omnia sol temperat is delivered with real sincerity, and that reminds us these are living, breathing characters with itches to scratch, and not larger-than-life caricatures. Indeed, everything about this performance is perfectly scaled, and the benefits in terms of insight and enjoyment are immense. Some may quibble that the pauses between numbers are too long – so many conductors seem impatient to push ahead – but that too reminds us that this is a collection of contrasting pieces that deserve to be heard - and savoured - in their own good time.
Ecce gratum isn’t as lusty as some, but that hardly matters given this degree of detail and transparency of texture. These qualities also shine through in the dance from Uf dem Anger, which has pleasing athleticism and shape. By contrast Floret silva nobilis is sedate in a way that underlines the oft-hidden elegance - courtliness, even - of this finely crafted pastiche. What a thrill it is to hear this music delivered with such poise, and how perfectly it encapsulates the affectionate, all-revealing character of Immerseel's remarkable conception.

Hearing Carmina Burana done this way makes many rivals seem crude and breathless by comparison. Chramer, gip die varwe mir is sung in the freshest of tones and its slow, dragging accompaniment is a delight; the round dance that follows has added gravitas. Goodness, this performance is full of surprises, not least in the delicious thrust and parry of Swaz hie gat umbe, where individual voices are easily heard. This part of Carmina Burana ends with a spirited account of Were diu werlt alle min which, despite its smaller scale, has plenty of weight and amplitude. Anima Eterna’s brass and percussion players, whose individual presence is easier to discern here than it is in heftier recordings, are heroic throughout.

In taberna gets under way with Bauer’s ardent Estuans interius. His isn’t a particularly big voice or the most steady, but it’s imaginatively used. Tenor Yves Saelens does a fine roasted swan, and he copes well with the taxing tessitura the solo demands; he certainly doesn’t go for the strained falsetto, as some do. Once again the instrumental backing emerges with extra tizz and tingle. Perhaps the chorus could have been a bit more incisive at this point, but they make up for any reticence with a deft rendition of In taberna quando sumus; the latter is seasoned with a magnificently controlled bass drum and dashes of that piquant gong.
Cours d’amours opens with a rather measuredaccount of Amor volat undique in which the clear, atmospheric boys’ voices make a telling contrast with soprano Yeree Suh’s very unusual solo. She doesn't warble so much as coo, an effect that's not as odd or contrived as it may seem. Hers isn’t a large voice either, but it has all the range and sustaining power that the role demands. Bauer’s Dies, nox et omnia is even more accomplished, for it has a quiet, very personal intensity that fits well with the more introspective nature of this performance; ditto Suh’s Stetit puella, whose high notes display astonishing precision and purity.

Immerseel keeps it all moving nicely, with no loss of focus or direction. Those used to a bigger, more robust choral sound may feel this section is a tad underpowered, although the benefits of greater transparency are felt in moments of unexpected engagement and sudden shafts of loveliness. Take the three tenors who sing in Si puer cum puellula; so often they sound corporate, anonymous, but here they come across as a genuine, very spontaneous threesome. There’s a heightened sense of flirtation here, as the men and women circle each other in suggestive celebration. Suh’s In trutina is simply ravishing and she sounds suitably ravished in Dulcissime. Even after that, when lesser men are wont to droop, Immerseel goads and energises his players to a truly rousing finale. That cheeky gong adds its voice to the tumult.

Occasionally a recording comes along that compels one to hear a familiar work with new ears. Robin Ticciati’s Symphonie fantastique is one, and this Carmina Burana is another. Trouble is, these newcomers make it all but impossible to revisit long-established favourites. Immerseel’s Carmina Burana certainly won’t please everyone, but its approachable scale and abundance of insights might just convert a few non-believers.

Carmina Burana as you’ve never heard it before; a triumph for all concerned.

Dan Morgan