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Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana

Ben Holt (baritone), Frank Kelly (tenor), Gabriela Herrera (soprano)
Choir of the Avademia de Musica de Mineria
Coro de los Niños de la Basilica de Guadalupe
Orquesta Sinfonica de Mineria
Herrera de la Fuente (conductor)
Rec 1988, Sala Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City
GUILD GMCD 7227 (58.58)


In 1937, following the performance of Carmina Burana, Orff disowned all his previous compositions, though some were eventually revised and restored. He then explained the unusual background to its creation: 'Fortune smiled on me when she put into my hands a Würzburg second-hand books catalogue, in which I found a title that exercised on me an attraction of frankly magnetic force. It read 'Carmina Burana, Latin and German songs and poems of a 13th century manuscript'.

On the front page he found the famous picture of 'Fortune with her wheel', beneath which was printed the lines: 'O fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis' ('O fortune, like the moon ever-changing'). This gave him the inspiration to start his project. What he had stumbled upon was a poetry of European stature, emanating from England, France, Spain and Italy. This had been preserved in a monastery, but it is not self-centred and confessional. Orff said, 'A special feature of the music is its static construction. In its verse structure there is no development. A musical formulation, once found, remains the same in all its repetitions, and the effect depends upon the terseness of the statement.'

Although the primary conception had been to create a work for the stage, in fact Carmina has become established into the choral repertory of the concert hall. In this regard Orff's subtitle makes an impressive point: 'Secular songs for solo singers and chorus, with instruments and magical pictures.'

This live performance, recorded as long ago as 1988 in Mexico City, has much to commend it. To begin with, there is a real sense of movement in the way that the eminent Latin-American Herrera de la Fuente has performed the parts that make up the whole, and each separate section leads the listener on and into the next. The orchestra plays with sprit as well as discipline, with clear articulation and tight ensemble, while the assembled choruses too display the fruits of careful preparation. The audience, the booklet tells us, numbered some 3000, and save for a very few individual contributions (thankfully this was the era before the advent of the mobile phone) they were extremely well behaved. Until the end, that is, when their enthusiasm could not allow for the final bars of the music to finish.

Therefore one consideration for the prospective purchaser of this CD is whether this intrusion will enhance the sense of occasion, or whether it might become an irritation on repeated hearings. I have to confess that for me it was an irritation at first hearing: if Orff had intended audience participation he would have written it into the score. But I admit that not everyone will share my Puritan view on these things. It always irritates me whenever I go to the opera.

The soloists sing well enough, but they are not best helped by the recorded balance. The soprano voice of Gabriela Herrera sounds well in this particularly lyrical role, and the tenor Frank Kelly copes as best he can with the fiendish falsetto of the roasting swan. But poor Ben Holt, the baritone, who sadly died soon after this performance, is placed far too backwardly in the perspective and he does make an appropriate impact, being almost drowned out by the orchestra. He sings well enough, with pleasing tone, but he cannot properly be heard.

In fact the recording is cut at a low level and needs to be boosted to do justice to what is certainly a good performance of the music. Once that is done there are rewards in plenty, though for the reasons stated, this cannot be classed as a leading contender in a crowded and competitive field.

Finally, a few words of praise to Guild for the quality of their booklet. Too often companies sell their customers short in this department, but here the print is admirably clear, with a sensible layout which allows the reader to find all the important information. And there are full texts and translations to accompany the excellent introductory essay by Robert Matthew Walker.

Terry Barfoot

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