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The Good, the Bad and the Orff

June 16, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's music you love to hate, or hate to love: "Carmina Burana," among the most reviled works of this century. In case you've forgotten, Carl Orff's mock medieval cantata, first performed in 1936, sets medieval poems, sacred and profane, German and Latin, in a musical style based on battering, repetitive rhythms, with harmony reduced to its barest essentials.

Ever since it emerged from the rubble of post-World War II Germany, "Carmina" has been a classic case of audience approval winning out over hostile press. Even more surprising is the number of high-class conductors, who wouldn't be caught dead performing anything else its composer wrote, who have found it difficult to resist.

Interestingly, the work owes much of its fame beyond the borders of the German-speaking world to the advocacy of one of the classiest conductors of them all, the late, erudite and undemonstrative Eugen Jochum, who would seem to have nothing in common with Orff other than their shared Bavarian nativity.

Jochum's first recording of "Carmina," made around 1950, brought the composer's name to the world's attention. And even if you didn't love it then, you had to have it to test and show off your newest-fangled hi-fi equipment; ditto in 1967, when Jochum rerecorded "Carmina," this time in super-stereo, to give your woofers a workout.

Jochum '67 returns courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon and its mid-priced Originals series (447 437), and it's still competitive, sonically speaking. Artistically, it remains in a class by itself: music of supreme (delectable) vulgarity delivered with optimum tastefulness, which is to say, played straight. The conductor hasn't cheated us on one iota of what makes the score a joy (or anathema) in the first place, its vitality and rhythmic intensity.

The difference between Jochum and most of his many recorded competitors is that he leaves bad enough alone. There is nothing of the display piece about his "Carmina": no attempt at the fastest tempos, the most precipitate choral cutoffs or most extreme dynamics.

Neither his chorus nor orchestra, both from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, are world-beaters, but both perform gleefully and skillfully. The soloists, however, are superb: Gundula Janowitz (floating tones with flute-like purity and cool sexiness); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (pointing words and phrases with the skill of a master of the lied rather than an opera-belter manque); and Gerhard Stolze (all the more believable for singing most of his lament of the roasting swan in a strained tenor rather the usual falsetto).

Orff's two other "scenic cantatas," as he called them--to indicate that they could be performed either staged or in concert--have failed to achieve anything resembling the fame, or infamy, of "Carmina Burana."

"Catulli Carmina" (1940), a setting of racy lyrics by the Roman poet Catullus, requires a good deal more skill of its choristers than its predecessor, and the orientation here is even more toward the percussive, with the instrumental weight carried by the battery and four pianos.

In one of the few recordings of "Catulli" in recent years (EMI 55172), Franz Welser-Most guides his forces, which include the superbly agile Linz Mozart Chorus and instrumentalists of the Munich Radio Orchestra, expertly, again without undue emphasis on the score's most egregious qualities. The soloists are soprano Dagmar Schellenberger and tenor Lothar Odinius, both obviously chosen for their pure, vibrato-less "early music" voices: a nice touch, bringing Orff's fabricated medievalism together with current notions of what the real thing sounded like.

Coupled with the "Catulli Carmina" is the third, last and least of Orff's cantatas, "Trionfo di Afrodite," this time setting Sappho, Catullus (again) and Euripides. The work, which dates from 1951, utterly exhausts the old, cleverly simplistic ostinato formulas. The orchestra is lavish, wasting a trio of guitars in addition to the expected instruments, which, this being Orff, include numerous pianos. "Trionfo" is the most "vocal" of the three works, what with battering-ram and ethereal choruses alternating with no fewer than eight put-upon vocal soloists, all doing their utmost--as does conductor Welser-Most--to give the impression of being engaged in something important.

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