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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana [63:30]
Penelope Walmsley-Clark (soprano)
John Graham-Hall (tenor)
Donald Maxwell (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Richard Hickox
rec. 1986, Abbey Road Studio 1
Booklet in English, no texts
ALTO ALC1336 [63:30]

If the advertisers haven’t yet driven you to despair with the first few bars of O fortuna, this is a reasonable Carmina Burana at budget price. If ‘reasonable’ seems a little lukewarm, considering the rapturous response this recording received from the British music press when it first appeared, the competition it now faces at all price points is even fiercer, in both performance and sound. At the next point up is the definitive 1968 Eugen Jochum version on DG, recorded in the composer’s presence, and also from the analogue stereo era are the estimable versions of Eugene Ormandy (Sony, 1960), Andre Previn (EMI, 1975) and Antal Dorati (Decca, 1976). This 1986 Richard Hickox account has the distinction of being one of the earliest digital recordings of the work – a mixed blessing, as I will come to explain. Many digital versions have followed, including the spectacular Herbert Blomstedt on Decca, and another from Hickox (review), released shortly before his death.

Having been raised on the Jochum recording, it’s hard not to regard it as a fixed interpretive point. From the outset it’s plain that Hickox conducts with a rather blunter instrument; the energy is there, but the finesse and insight not nearly so. His tempos tend to be deliberate and inflexible (he’s a full 7 minutes longer than Jochum) which, reading my colleague Dan Morgan’s review of the later Hickox recording, may have been an enduring trait. It’s intriguing that no other interpreter I’ve heard, including Hickox, plays the bass drum and tam-tam explosions in the latter part of O fortuna quite the same as Jochum does – he achieves a distinct boo-waah shell-burst sonority which, with Orff present, you would presume was the intended effect.

Reading the Penguin Guide of the time, the authors seem to think Hickox excels in the work's lustier moments, none more so than “I am bursting out all over” from Tempus est iocundum, where they opine, perhaps in rather non-PC terms even then, that the Southend Boys’ Choir (who curiously escape any mention in this CD’s details) “make sure we know they understand all about sexual abandon”. I’m not so sure, and indeed ‘knowing’ is not an obvious attribute of this Carmina Burana. While no doubt Hickox, a noted choral as well as orchestral conductor, was urging his charges to faithfully convey the texts of Orff’s luridly colourful score, Jochum’s forces not only perform those texts with absolute authenticity, but palpably mean them.

Likewise Hickox’s soloists are competent, but hardly characterful, save perhaps for John Graham-Hall’s song of the roasted swan. Jochum’s dream team – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gundula Janowitz and Gerhard Stolze – stand apart; Fischer-Dieskau’s Abbot has the hectoring tone that later became less attractive in his Schubert, but carries the right weight and authority here, and Janowitz, pure and simple of tone – virginal, dare I say - is quite ravishing in Stetit puella and In trutina, and then nails Dulcissime as the work’s pivotal climax. Penelope Walmsley-Clark, the Hickox soprano, sings sweetly but not nearly as alluringly.

Originally a John Boyden/Pickwick production made at Abbey Road, the sound for Hickox is truly a mixed bag, on the one hand full and detailed with an impressive dynamic range (better in that regard than Jochum’s DG recording), but on the other possessing an unnatural sound stage, in both width and depth. It’s a multi-miked affair, with individual instruments and sections spotlighted and panned into position. For the most part the men and women of the LSO Chorus seem to be split hard right and left respectively. Much the same applies to the orchestra, with the violins in particular concentrated to a point on the extreme left. The centre stage is largely unoccupied, save for the contributions of the soloists. The overall sound is also on the bright side and, being an early digital recording, many will attribute this to ‘digital glare’ or ‘digititis’, but I beg to differ. The advent of digital sound laid bare that the engineers’ choices of equipment (especially microphones) and recording techniques were not always the best. Analogue mastering often masked these imperfections, and the kind of soundstage anomalies I’ve noted here may not have been apparent in vinyl days. The compensation in this case is a large dose of digital heft, just the ticket for a work like this.

Without ignoring the acclaim this Richard Hickox Carmina Burana has received in the past, I can only offer a qualified recommendation, even at its budget price. In a hotly contested field, better performances, Eugen Jochum’s for one, can be had for very little more. The Hickox recording has some advantage in its more impactful, digital sound, but it also reveals some late analogue hangovers.

Des Hutchinson



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