Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Thielemann) – ‘Orff: Carmina Burana’ A DVD-Audio review by Mark Jordan

Debauchery. Sex. Gambling. Drunkenness. Aimless wanderings by overeducated, underemployed young people in a society that scorns them. Sound familiar? Well, it shouldn’t, because I’m talking about Europe in the late 1200’s. But the more things change… These wandering scholars, monks, and bards were known as Goliards, and their drunken, bawdy appearances in towns of medieval Europe were usually followed by their being outlawed and thrown out of said towns shortly thereafter. But the powers that be in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuren couldn’t quite bring themselves to destroy the brilliant bawdy songs the Goliards left behind. To be sure, the works were far too risqué and pagan to let the “common folk” hear them. So they tucked the verses away in the monastery for (ahem) the protection of the people, where only the monks could (ahem) study them. After the Benediktbeuren collection was revealed and published in the nineteenth century, it became well known in literary circles, but it wasn’t until the verses were appropriated by German composer Carl Orff in the 1930’s that they achieved their modern fame.

It has been fashionable over the years for jaded critics and other assorted classical music snobs to decry Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ as crude, unsubtle, and obvious. It is none of those things, intrinsically, although some performances are. These reactions have come mainly from the work’s omnipresence – Let’s face it, everyone gets tired at times of pieces that are so famous they seem to show up in every movie soundtrack. And some folks are frustrated by the fact that Orff’s synthesis of middle-period Stravinsky and folk music has become far more famous than his original models. Perhaps that doesn’t seem fair to Stravinsky, but then again, he could have gone more in this direction if he had wanted to. But he didn’t, and so Orff picked up the ball and ran with it. Orff hit, in at least this one piece, something primal and Jungian in the human social psyche. He evokes the mythos of a long lost past that still stirs our blood; he captures the archetype of a glorious age of passion and freedom all the more pulse-pounding for its chaos, darkness, and recklessness. In short, he gives us the middle ages as we wish them to have been, a mythical time full of lovers and drunkards, heroes and scoundrels, flowers and fair maidens. Historically precise it isn’t, because Orff was unaware that the original tunes to these verses were still in existence (though not yet published at the time when he wrote the work), and thus Orff wrote his own original music, but full of life it most certainly is. I am even willing to go out on a limb and say the piece deserves its overbearing fame.

So here we have the appearance on the DVD-Audio format of the 1999 recording of Orff’s masterpiece by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin and the Berlin Children’s Choir, led by Christian Thielemann. The soloists are Christiane Oelze, David Kuebler and Simon Keenleyside.

Surprisingly, there have only been a few multichannel ‘Carmina Buranas’ so far, even though it is an ideal work for surround-sound experimentation. After all, Orff described the piece as a “dramatic cantata”, so standard concert layout of the performers was neither desired nor required by the composer. On the other hand, that conceptual flexibility has led to some peculiar sounding recordings over the years. Fortunately, Deutsche Grammophon here gives an impactful recording that doesn’t shrink from the work’s bombastic aspects, while remaining attentive to the conductor’s basically reflective and expansive approach. Although moments of Thielemann’s performance are quite languorous, his view bears the advantage of playing to the work’s mythic aspects. Clearly Thielemann is not out to simply wow the listener with the loudest banging of the drums (we have Muti’s recording for that), he instead seeks to hold the piece together in a unified dramatic arc. Having it performed by operatic forces contributes to that overall sense of dramatic flow. In his seriousness and introspection, Thielemann somewhat reminds me of the earlier Deutsche Grammophon recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, yet Thielemann is more searching than Levine, who plays the work from a sensualist’s point of view. Of course, some may aver that the sensual point of view is Orff’s, and indeed, Thielemann’s epic pose is a bit pompous and self-conscious. But then, Thielemann has proven consistent in his vision throughout his controversial recordings, and this piece can handle the grandiosity better than, say, Schumann. The only caveat I would give prospective buyers is that in typical fashion, Thielemann concentrates more on large-scale flow that detailed rhythmical snap. Thielemann prefers to paint his orchestral sound with a broad brush, which gives his reading a very different feel from, say, Herbert Blomstedt’s detail-oriented recording discussed below. One minor detail that irked me here, as in almost every recording, is that the solo flautist in “Chume, Chum Geselle Min” disregards Orff’s specified breathing marks. Anyone can see that Orff’s breath marks are not for practical reasons – no player needs a breath after just three notes in a flowing tempo, but it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to figure out why they are there. They are for phrasing, and flautists who disregard them (and conductors who don’t correct them) are quite simply wrong.

This recording is accurately described as “advanced resolution” digital, as it was made in 1999, soon after modern multichannel technology began catching on, with a sampling resolution of 48kHz, as opposed to the potential multi-channel high resolution level, which is 96kHz. Thus this recording is not as vividly present as it would be at higher resolution, but it is still more vivid and lifelike than a standard Compact Disc recording, which is limited to 16-bits, unlike this more dynamic 24-bit version. The dedicated stereo mix is also 48kHz 24-bit. But as always, the single most important factor is making a successful recording is having engineers with good ears, and Deutsche Grammophon’s Ulrich Vette and Reinhard Lagemann prove adept. Though not as bright as the Decca Blomstedt recording, the broad and impactful sound featured here seems to match the conductor’s conception in a way that a brighter recording would not. The sound is big and rich, featuring considerable space around the performers, without sacrificing an undue amount of detail. While a certain amount of spotlighting is used (as is typical with Deutsche Grammophon), it is tastefully done, without great jarring shifts of perspective. The general perspective is one of moderate distance, close enough to catch the sound-color of each instrumental section, yet distant enough to give the sound an epic sweep. Most notable of all is the consistent balance between chorus and orchestra. This is not one of those recordings where the orchestra is relegated to indistinct background status, it is full and richly saturated with both instrumental and vocal sounds. The soloists are presented front and center, mainly through the center channel, but not excessively spotlighted in relation to the orchestra and chorus. The Dolby Digital surround program seems a bit subdued in comparison to the PCM multichannel output, it lacks the full-blooded thrill of the advanced-resolution program. The PCM stereo program is fine, with just a bit more presence and edge than a regular Compact Disc would have, but the real treat is still the multichannel program, where the sound becomes much more spacious. As noted, Thielemann’s performance is more rich than punchy, so the lush envelope of surround sound fits it perfectly.

As mentioned above, the most powerful and adrenaline-fueled rendition of ‘Carmina Burana’ is the thrilling performance Riccardo Muti recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1980 for EMI. Its sound is not always as clear as the finest modern recordings, but it packs plenty of wallop and a number of things make Muti’s relentless performance a must for any collection of Orff recordings. One is that Muti is a dramatist of the first rank, and he knows how to build up the cumulative tension in this work like no other conductor. An additional bonus is that he actually follows more of Orff’s detailed instructions than most conductors (although he does not follow all). One of the high points is the drinking song “In Taberna Quando Sumus” which Muti does to perfection. He wisely chooses a tempo that is vigorous yet slow enough for the chorus to actually hit all the words with force, instead of scrambling to keep up with an impossible tempo as in Dutoit or Tilson Thomas’ recordings. And most treasurable of all is Arleen Auger’s exquisite singing of “Dulcissime”. Here, for once, we can hear the poised, rapturous ecstasy that Orff was trying to capture, instead of an excruciating squeal that sounds like someone strangling a cougar. No other soprano I’ve heard has even come close to floating those extreme high notes with such sweetness and grace as Auger. Though less than a minute long, Auger’s “Dulcissime” is one of the supreme moments in the history of recording, well worth the CD’s current budget price all in itself. The downside of Muti’s performance is in his relative unwillingness to slow down and savor the music of the “Cour d’Amours” section, although his continuous forward-press holds the work effectively together. It would be interesting to hear Muti’s approach to this work now, a quarter of a century later, when his youthful adrenaline has begun to be replaced with the insight of age.

Perhaps the flipside of Muti’s approach is found in the late 1960’s recording by Antal Doráti and the Royal Philharmonic on Decca. Doráti is at his finest in the languorous, introspective parts of the score, but sometimes seems to hold the reins a bit loosely in the more barn-storming sections. In a few places, he even seems reluctant to let it rip (which is unusual for Doráti), such as in the subdued gong stroke at the opening of the closing repeat of “O Fortuna”, instead of Orff’s specified wallop. Treasurable, though, is Doráti’s way of having the women singers use a very sexy portamento in “Floret Silva” and “Chume, Chum Geselle Min”, sliding coyly from note to note in a way that makes you miss it painfully when it isn’t there in other recordings. Doráti’s handling of the quiet little round dance “Reie” is a textbook example of how a great conductor can make a piece of music sound much more evocative than it looks on the printed page of the score. It speaks highly for Thielemann that he largely matches Doráti’s touch here. Doráti’s baritone, John Shirley-Quirk, is worth noting for his droll characterization of the drunken Abbot of Cockaigne in “Ego Sum Abbas”. The Decca recording was originally one of those garish “Phase 4 Stereo” recordings that Decca perpetrated in the late 1960’s, so there is much hauling about of spot microphones, causing suddenly shifting points of view. It has been tamed and remixed as much as possible in its current budget incarnation, and is worth consideration for its warmth and special touches, even if it isn’t an ideal first choice.

Those who aren’t interested in Thielemann’s symphonic sweep may find themselves more in their element with the Grammy®-winning recording that Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony made for Decca in 1990. It is certainly the cleanest ‘Carmina Burana’ ever recorded, if that sounds like your idea of a good time. His soloists are quite good, but Blomstedt’s uptight way with the score is about as racy as a Lutheran hymnal. To paraphrase Ani DiFranco, there’s some kind of excessive hygiene going on here. On the other hand, the punchy gleam of the recording makes it almost worthy of consideration in its own right.

Another past Grammy winner was the mid-1970’s recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Cleveland Orchestra. It certainly has its fans, and for variety from the “standard” approach to the work, I suppose it is recommendable. But the fast tempos are so wildly fast, the chorus seems to direct most of its energy to keeping up with the hyperactive conductor, thus there is little in the way of characterization and impact in the choruses. And in terms of recorded sound, this CBS recording strikes me as downright peculiar. Most prominent of all the instruments in the orchestra is the piano, followed by the percussion instruments, with the rest of the orchestra chiming mostly as if from another room, with the exception of the occasional spot microphone glaringly highlighting an instrument or section.

Another recording with loyal fans is the EMI Previn/London Symphony recording, which has been reissued in multichannel. Although I have always admired the bold, clear recording, I have never found Previn’s relatively laid-back approach very satisfactory for this rambunctious work, and his remake for Deutsche Grammophon a few years ago went even further in that direction. Though Previn keeps his rhythms sprung, there is an overall lack of forward momentum. Thielemann, by comparison, though having less crisp rhythms, achieves an overall sweep that maintains momentum.

Franz Welser-Möst’s London Philharmonic rendition on EMI pops up periodically at budget price and in a complete set of the ‘Trionfi’ trilogy, of which ‘Carmina Burana’ is the first past. Welser-Möst seems most in his element in big choral/orchestral works, and ‘Carmina Burana’ is no exception. What a shame, then, that the recorded sound of his version takes him largely out of contention, at least in my book. The performance itself rivals Muti’s in adrenaline, and surpasses it in places in terms of fast tempos. (Indeed, in Welser-Möst’s “In Taberna Quando Sumus” it sounds like last call has been made and everyone’s trying to squeeze in another round before they get thrown out.) But the recording venue is EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No.1, a big boomy room that is frequently used for recording orchestras because of London’s dearth of ideal concert halls. Unfortunately, the Abbey Road hall is far from ideal. Instead of the mellow richness of a concert hall built with lots of wood and plaster, it gives us the dull mid-range boom of a building made out of concrete blocks or some such unyielding material. Further compromising the sound is the attempt to give it symphonic sweep by moving the microphones back for the orchestra, but close for the chorus with sudden spotlight microphones for various instrumental details. At low levels, the recording has no impact. At high levels, it becomes harsh. The boomy hall turns the midrange into mush, is clangorous on the high end, and dead on the low end. In short, the recording’s a mess, removing a fine performance from consideration. At least, for consolation, Welser-Möst’s later recordings of ‘Catulli Carmina’ and ‘Trionfo di Aphrodite’ are quite simply the best performances of those works that have ever been captured, and the recorded sound is much better. If anyone ever makes recordings again in Cleveland, where Welser-Möst is currently doing some nice work, a remake of ‘Carmina Burana’ would be most welcome.

Though I have not heard it in its SACD format, Eugene Ormandy’s recording on CBS from the early 1960’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra has stood the test of time as one of the most satisfyingly straightforward versions ever recorded. Though it doesn’t linger over details like Levine or push as dramatically as Muti, it still holds its ground in a competitive field, even with its relatively dated sound.

The recorded sound of Eugen Jochum’s classic 1968 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra and Chorus, is also a bit dated, but this is the one performance most frequently cited over the years as the yardstick by which all others are measured. No performance exceeds it in terms of rich characterization, which keeps it at the top of any list of desirable ‘Carmina Burana’ recordings. From the urgent tones of the chorus in “O Fortuna” to Gerhard Stolze’s unforgettably over-the-top rendition of “Olim Lacus Colueram”, it is a performance saturated with theatrical intensity, and Jochum’s unerring pacing never fails to convince.

I would also like to cite one fairly obscure recording. In 1973, following a semi-staged production in Munich, the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus made a recording led by distinguished German conductor Kurt Eichorn, with his brother Gregor Eichorn serving as chorus director. Although not without flaws, it is a fine performance characterized by weighty attacks and strong concentration. Its finest asset is the way baritone soloist Hermann Prey brings his songs to life. Granted, he is a bit freewheeling, certainly more operatic than any other singer of these parts, but his theatricality plays very effectively against Eichorn’s grim sternness. On the downside, Eichorn has a tendency to treat Orff’s breathing pauses (marked in the score with hatch marks) as fermatas, a mannerism that also distracts in parts of Doráti’s and even in a few places in Thielemann’s (such as the very opening phrases of “O Fortuna”, or before the climax of “Blanziflor et Helena”). The old LP I have of the Eichorn is on Eurodisc, which is now owned by BMG, but it is not currently available on CD. If you can search out a copy of it used, it is worth hearing. And if it ever shows up on CD, someone please let me know, because my old record has scratches and skips. I have heard that a DVD version of the original production is available in Europe.

Returning to Thielemann’s, the supplementary materials to be viewed via television screen are a mixed bag. One nice feature is a catalogue of other Thielemann’s recordings with one to two minute audio excerpts from those recordings. There is also a small gallery of photos of the conductor and soloists, but these are the same pictures used in the artwork on the covers. The big disappointment is that the texts are not included in the supplementary material. The texts and translations are included in the booklet, and the English translation used (the Decca translation from 1984) is a good one. But how nice it would be to have the texts accessible through the disc itself. Even better would be to have the texts on screen in place of the predictable medieval image with song title. Any way you slice it, this work doesn’t make its full impact without an understanding of the texts, and on-screen presentation would be the best use of the technology for presenting said texts. Incidentally, for those keeping score, Thielemann’s performers use an appropriate Germanic pronunciation of the Vulgate Latin texts, instead of a Church Latin pronunciation, although they do not go as far as Levine and his chorus director Margaret Hillis did in their recording, with very tart accents, going so far as to pronounce the middle-German word “ih” as the modern German “ich” in “Were diu Werlt alle min”.

In sum, though as always with a work of this size and variety, there are some details that are questionable, this is overall a fine and convincing ‘Carmina Burana’ recorded in rich advanced resolution sound. Thielemann proves true to form, grandiose as ever. Meanwhile, chalk up another memorable recording of this primal masterpiece. Orff’s wheel of fortune keeps churning along.