February 08, 2007


Orff: Carmina Burana. Marin Alsop conducting soloists, choruses and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Stravinsky: Pastorale; Histoire du Soldat Suite; Three Pieces for Clarinet; Pour Picasso; Pribaoutki; Berceuses du Chat; Renard: Burlesque in One Act; Two Balmont Songs; Three Japanese Lyrics; Scherzo à la Russe; Song of the Volga Boatmen. Robert Craft conducting soloists, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

      Marin Alsop’s new recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a wonder: the best Carmina Burana by anyone in years, if not decades, and the best recording of anything that Alsop has made to date. The work is a near-perfect fit for Alsop’s style: she is especially attuned to 20th-century music, and she handles episodic works particularly well. Abetted by excellent soloists and several top-notch choral groups, and blessed with what may be the clearest sound yet to come out of Naxos, this Carmina Burana is a joy from start to finish.

      Everything is audible here: the last quiet reverberation of percussion, the contrast between different types of drums, the quietest passages and the loudest. The singers, including soloists and choruses, actually seem to understand the words they are saying and the subjects they are singing about – a significant contrast to the going-through-the-motions approach in so many Carmina Burana performances. The Highcliffe Junior Choir sings clearly and with verve; the Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus has heft as well as clarity; and the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus is simply wonderful, belting out the many full-choral sections of Orff’s work with intensity and enthusiasm. Baritone Markus Eiche, who has the most solo work to do, has a strong, fine voice whose tone he changes according to what he is singing about. Soprano Claire Rutter can be plaintive when called for and operatically effulgent when, in “Dulcissime,” she needs to be. And tenor Tom Randle does a fine turn (so to speak) as the goose roasting on a spit. But it is Alsop’s marvelous direction that keeps everything so well-paced and interesting, as she brings out instrumental as well as verbal highlights of the music while amply contrasting the different individual pieces and entire sections. It is a bravura performance on all levels.

      Nitpick alert: there are a few minor missteps. The “ha, ha” at the end of “Ego sum abbas” sounds thrown away; Eiche sounds menacing rather than seductive in “Circa mea pectora”; and the repeat of “O Fortuna” at the end does not have quite as much intensity as this chorus does at the beginning. But, again, these are minor flaws in a major success. Naxos is to be commended for providing full texts and translations, too – although a printing error in the booklet leaves one page blank (again, a minor matter: listeners will be able to find all the words). Alsop’s Carmina Burana is the one to have if, for some reason, you do not yet own this work. If you already have a version, or several, you will nevertheless want this one as well – it’s that good.

      Robert Craft is always good in his Stravinsky performances, and the latest CD in Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection is no exception. This is a decidedly odd disk, though, with no noticeable rhyme or reason to the program. One would expect Craft to offer a complete recording of Histoire du Soldat, Stravinsky’s tale of a soldier and the Devil, but here we get only the music – no dialogue. Renard is offered complete, however, with words in English (Stravinsky wanted this work performed in the language of its audience). The rest of the pieces here are quite short – for example, Song of the Volga Boatmen runs less than 90 seconds, and Pour Picasso less than 30. The various pieces are scattered throughout the CD, in no way united by date of composition, form of music or much of anything else except that they are by Stravinsky. The result is a grab-bag of a CD with many delightful moments but the overall feeling of being a bit of a mishmash. Vocal and instrumental soloists, and the various orchestras and orchestra members, all perform well under Craft’s highly knowledgeable direction. And his booklet notes are, as always, intelligently written, if at times a touch esoteric. This is a CD that will be most enjoyed by dyed-in-the-wool fans of Stravinsky, Craft or both. Casual listeners may find its lack of apparent organization a trifle off-putting.

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