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Carl Orff Carmina Burana
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
St Clement Danes Grammar School Boys Choir
Conducted by André Previn

Review By Phil Gold

 

  One of the most popular and idiosyncratic works of the twentieth century, Orff's Carmina Burana is meant to overwhelm the senses. Not just the ears, but the eyes too, with dancers accompanying the music. We don't have that here of course, but if you close your eyes this very vivid performance may conjure up the dancers for you. This work, the first in a cycle of three, sets long lost 13th century poetry, discovered in a Benedictine monastery in the 19th century, to music. It looks back to very early music and strips out layers of complex harmony and subtlety to highlight instead simplicity and primitive rhythms. The work was published in 1936 and its success was immediate. Even if you've never heard the work straight through, chances are you've been exposed to parts of it in various movie soundtracks.

Previn, a jazz pianist and composer as well as an orchestral conductor, may not be the last word in the standard romantic/classical repertoire but his relationship with the LSO was very special indeed and his command over timing, balance, phrasing and tone color are exceptionally strong. There have been countless performances of Carmina Burana since this one was set down in December 1974 but few of them have outclassed the fidelity of the analog recording in the fine acoustic of London's Kingsway Hall, and none to my knowledge have presented so clearly the imaginative power of Orff's early masterpiece. Previn does not play for effect here, as it must be so tempting to do. His tempi are brilliantly chosen throughout, and for each part in relation to the whole. He gets out of the way and mixes extreme simplicity and beauty with raucous power, catching the rhythmic writing as perhaps only a jazz musician can.

This recording has been in the catalog for ever, with a fine EMI digital remastering in 1998 improving on the original CD release which was somewhat thin and strident. HI-Q Records have pulled out all the stops by engaging Japan's JVC XRCD team to master and manufacture this new version, taking advantage of their Digital K2 process to eliminate jitter and their DVD K2 laser to cut the "Redbook" format CD glass master. Basically, this is a painstaking process with very close attention paid to the details. HI-Q Records are amassing a library of superb recording from the early years of stereo reissued to the highest standards, so all power to them.

I can't tell you how this issue compares to all earlier releases but I can say with one small caveat that the sound is exemplary, as good as you are going to get in Redbook format for any classical analog reissue. What sounds like brightness at the explosive opening is simply the orchestration and choral power as written. Later movements show a warmer disposition, some excellent deep bass and unusually fine percussion sounds. That caveat? On one or two occasions the last decaying tones of a particular movement are truncated and the sound cuts abruptly to black. I would prefer the low level of tape hiss be maintained between movements so as not to draw attention to the gaps between tracks. You may not even notice this in your system.

Thanks to the fine sound and the enormous dynamic range that it captures, we are brought very close to the music itself. And this is where Previn succeeds in convincing us this is truly a masterpiece, while in some other hands it is a pastiche or even a showpiece. Previn coaxes a warm involving performance from all his soloists, vocal and instrumental, and on the large orchestral and choral forces involved. I came away with a higher opinion of Carmina Burana and Orff the composer than I had coming in. How I wish that as I could admire Orff the man, but that's quite another story.

 

 

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