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Carl Orff
Carmina Burana
Donald Runnicles/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Review by Karl Lozier
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Carl Orff  Carmina Burana

SACD Stock Number: Telarc Hybrid 60575


  Orff was born in Munich, Germany in 1895. He founded a school of music in Munich and also had become the conductor of the Bavarian Theater Orchestra. He composed a fair amount of vocal and instrumental music in the ten years following 1925. In 1935 he withdrew and publicly disowned everything he had written! He then became one of the most inventive, forceful and original composers for the contemporary stage - and one of the very best. His compositions tend to consist of rhythmic declamations that utilize rapidly repeated notes and a distinctly primary rhythmic, melodic and harmonic basis. His new direction in writing was first realized with a trilogy of "operas" entitled Trionfi.

The first and most famous of the trilogy was Carmina Burana. It was first performed in 1937. To help explain Orff's compositions and unusual musical style, I am going to quote Henry Pleasants. "Orff has retreated to the Middle Ages and even to the Greeks. He confines himself to the simplest melodic and rhythmic patterns, often reminiscent of Gregorian chants." Do not let that profoundly accurate statement dissuade you from listening to the deeply moving melodies and dramatic effects with orchestra, chorus (actually choruses) with added soloists in some sections that tend to stick in listeners' memories. Though I believe it was originally scored for a small chorus, here and with other versions I've heard, the chorus is very large and I've certainly become used to it that way. The last live performance I attended, featured close to two hundred singers, male and female choruses plus children's choirs. In forte' passages, with a large orchestra in an average size concert hall, the effect can be absolutely overwhelming and not to be equaled in our homes; this recording comes as close as any I've heard in my home though.

Carmina Burana is based on poems written in two different languages, Medieval Latin and German. These poems, stories and tales were written by a lustier group than the typical troubadours who entertained a distinctly higher class of people than these songs were intended for. They had been lost for a long time until discovered in 1803 at the Benedictine monastery in Bavaria near Munich. Orff selected from these and composed original music and used the poetry written centuries previously. Though at least one of my reference books lists it being an opera, as far as I am concerned it meets all definitions of being a cantata and it simply "feels" like one when listening. Carmina Burana is basically an ever-continuing cycle, not with a sad finale as is ever common in operas. The opening, "Oh, Fortune (Fate)" is a chorus setting the mood for the entire composition and it returns to round out the cycle at the end, which is simply another beginning. Much is extremely impressive and has been used often in movie soundtracks; thus used, my personal favorite is the darkly provocative cult favorite, Excalibur with perfect settings for the ritualistic chanting. Part I is "Springtime", celebrating its and lovemaking's annual return.

Part II, "In the Tavern" featuring appropriate songs for male soloists and male chorus. If you are a lover of male choral works, you will really dig many of these. Part III is the "Court of Love" which ends with a pagan call to hedonistic pleasure. The composition then closes with the "Wheel of Fortune (Fate)" completing its revolution (and starting a new one). This composition is bold and far-reaching and could be considered a near masterpiece. At times, listening to Carmina Burana jogged my memory into thinking about that masterpiece written a little more than a century previously and also based on a serious poem (usually referred to as an ode) written by Schiller.

The dynamic orchestral/choral combination opening "Oh, Fortune" of Carmina Burana is impressively clean and clear - fairly close up, but no obvious spotlighting, but powerfully impressive with a particularly cleanly and clearly reproduced bass drum. These pieces are the beginning even though the next few sections are part I that are subtly beautiful with some exotic percussion instruments punctuating the melodic choral work. Part II does have some sections where the vocal parts are not all supposed to be pleasingly lyrical or beautiful, but a bit rough and downright rowdy. Part III returns to more appealing melodies with great clarity and ambiance in the many choral sections with a baritone soloist added in some passages. Try as I might, I'm unable to dissect the parts that add up to the overall excellent sound quality.

Repeated listening reinforces the feeling of excellent sound and appropriate perspective. Probably not perfect but close enough with no hint of harsh or edgy quality in the treble range. The disc ends with a repeat of the beginning, which starts the cycle once again. Very highly recommended to choral music lovers as well as audiophiles. If you are not familiar with this music, you should be. Those of you who possess this music on the earlier Telarc 80056 with Robert Shaw, recorded approximately ten years earlier, will enjoy comparing the recordings section by section to hear where the new recording technology may improve on the fine original recording.












































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