Orff: Carmina Burana

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Carmina Burana
PERFORMER: Sylvia Greenberg (soprano), James Bowman (countertenor), Stephen Roberts (baritone); Berlin Radio SO and Chorus/Riccardo Chailly
It is the music, not the message, that has given Carl Orff’s Carmina burana enduring popularity since its first performance in 1937. The tramping rhythms, simple harmonies and brutish melodies have made it one of the few pieces of serious music from the modern era to have won truly popular acclaim – until the world discovered Górecki, that is. The hi-fi era brought fresh devotees, as the massive chorus of ‘O Fortuna’ joined the ranks of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem and the opening peroration of Also sprach Zarathustra as music to shake the floorboards and show off your woofers. I suspect that many fans have been blithely unaware that lurking behind the academic title is a lewd and libidinous text that would make a vicar blush. This, reasoned Decca, would be even more of a selling point, and so late last year a revamped 1984 recording of Carmina hit the record shops, backed by a soft-porn TV ad showing a semi-naked girl swaying sensually to the music. This misses the point, for Carl Orff’s treatment of these 13th-century lyrics is far from erotic. On the contrary, the heavy neo-classical barbarism which dominates this work is emotionally arid.


The Calig performance is entertaining. The choruses have a bit of swing and the soloists are in character – particularly Ulrich Ress who shrieks in falsetto agony as the roasted swan on the spit. But the recording is opaque and dull, the booklet offers only a German translation for the Latin, and the inclusion of Catulli carmina and Dithyrambi on the second disc may double the amount of music but not the interest. RCA’s offering is grandiose, but using a tenor, not a countertenor, is uncomfortable, not least one imagines for the tenor. That leaves Decca, fortunate in having James Bowman as an eloquent (countertenor) swan, impressively recorded, and probably the best of three if you can cope with the trendy packaging complete with a sticker boasting ‘Features Old Spice music’. Christopher Lambton.