TWO NEW RECORDINGS of Carl Orff's remarkably popular Carmina Burana have been issued recently, both of them among the best ever. One of them, in fact, may just be the best of the 10 or 12 available now.
One is a remake by the East German conductor Herbert Kegel, whose earlier version circulated here briefly on the MGM/Heliodor label, and who has given us impressive recordings of several of Orff's other works. His associates this time are soprano Celestina Casapietra, tenor Horst Hiestermann, baritone Karl-Heinz Stryczek, the Leipzig Radio Orchestra and Chorus, and the Dresden Choir Boys (Phillips 9500.040; cassette 7300.4444). The performance is bracingly idiomatic --exuding earthy spontaneity and yet extremely polished, and very handsomely recorded. The documentation is exceptional, identifying the specific source among the old Benediktbeuren manuscripts for each section of the text.
No one could be unhappy with this recording; it is the sort of performance one continues to enjoy for solid musical values long after the novelty of the work has evaporated. It is Kegel's misfortune, in a sense, that the timing of the release brings his recording into direct comparison with the even more persuasive one under Antal Dorati in London's "Phase 4" series (SPC-21153; cassette SPC5-21153), which strikes me as the clear winner, not only in this particular engagement but among all current versions.
This happens to be the first recording by Dorati and the Royal Philharmonic to be released in this country since he became chief conductor of that orchestra in 1975, though he has also completed a Beethoven symphony cycle and a new complete Firebird with the RPO for another company. Turnabout has also released a disc of the Franck Symphony and Symphonic Variations, with Ilse von Alpenheim as soloist in the latter work, which was reviewed in these pages last February 27. Norma Burrowes, Louis Devos, John Shirley-Quirk, the Brighton Festival Chorus and the Southend Boy's Choir complete the roster of performing personnel.
Burrowes is perhaps less striking than Casapietra (and neither is a match for Judith Blegen in the rather overproduced version under Michael Tilson Thomas on Columbia). But she does well enough with her taxing part; Shirley-Quirk is his usual dependable self and Devos, I think, is quite outstanding. All vocal and instrumental participants in the various ensembles seem to be in top form and having a grand time, and the "Phase 4" approach, with its close-up focus, suits this music particularly well.
The dominant element in Carmina Burana, of course (some insist it is the only element), is rhythm, and it is Dorati's superb feeling for rhythm, most of all, that gives him the edge over his competitors. He shows, without self-consciousness, that even ostinati can be subtle. His pacing in several sections is on the deliberate side, and, like Sir Thomas Beecham, he demonstrates that the excitement thus generated can be electrifying.
The opening section, for example, is taken very broadly, but it does not drag and is not monumentalized; it has a firm and compelling momentum, and in the second verse an inflammatory excitement has more or less sneaked up on us: nothing is premature, and there is no anticlimax. In the work's one nonvocal number, the Dance (No. 6), Kegel lets the tempo run away with him a bit; it is not ineffective, but Dorati's rock-steady rhythm is so much more effective -- and bears repetition so much better -- than the headlong approach.
Dorati's overall timing is three or four minutes longer than the average -- not a big difference, but what an extraordinary musicality one feels in this performance, and what a sense of pulse! The slight relaxation -- or deliberation -- in key sections is wholly consonant with the expansiveness of the text at those points, and in the wordless Dance already mentioned allows for the swagger that makes the difference between an efficient or even attractive performance and an irresistible one.