Orff: Carmina Burana (CD review)

Sally Matthews, soprano; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Christian Gerhaher,
baritone; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Radio Chorus.
EMI 7243-5-57888-2.

Since moving to the conductorship of the Berlin
Philharmonic some years ago, Sir Simon Rattle has been advocating live
recording with a vengeance. I admit this often produces more lively and
spontaneous results, having a real audience during the performance, but it
doesn’t always do a lot for a recording’s sonics. Such is the case with Rattle’s release of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, that perennial favorite
of music lovers the world over, as well as movie directors and television

First, the performance. The soloists, chorus, and
orchestra seem at first glance letter perfect, as we might expect from these
people, and Rattle’s interpretation is vigorous, to say the least. The reading
is, however, perhaps a touch too slick for its own good, lacking some of the
earthiness the work might have found by its being slowed down a tad rather than
taken at such extreme tempo changes. Rattle’s slowly and softly articulating
one section of the music and then blasting it out fast and loud in the next can
be exhilarating for a while but ultimately taxing on the mind and the ears. Nor
do his singers always provide him the best support.

Created in 1937 and based on thirteenth-century
manuscripts in Latin, French, and German, the Carmina Burana songs divide into three parts covering the pleasures
of springtime, drinking, and love, all within the framework of “Fortuna,” luck
or fate. Under Rattle, everything seems quite energetically pursued, but, as I
say, those drastic changes of pace tend to undermine the whole enterprise.

The live sound, made in the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2004
does not appear to me as convincing as most studio recordings, the way it’s
miked making some instruments fade into the background or suddenly jump to the
forefront. The solo voices come off best, very clear and natural in their
presentation, but the orchestra fares more poorly. The sound, quite dynamic, is
rather bright in the climaxes and fortissimos, somewhat muted at other times,
and slightly thin overall. Frankly, despite the newer digital origins of the
Rattle disc, I found it inferior to the older, analogue recordings of Andre
Previn (EMI) and Eugen Jochum (DG), whose interpretations seem to me more
refined, more robust, more consistent, and, yes, better recorded.


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