November 21, 2012


Orff: Carmina Burana; Catulli Carmina; Trionfo di Afrodite. Kölner Rundfunkchor and Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Ferdinand Leitner. Acanta. $24.99 (3 CDs).

Respighi: Complete Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Impressioni brasiliane; Trittico botticelliano; Vetrate di chiesa; Concerto a cinque; Poema autunnale; Concerto all’antica. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 5: Schumann—Kreisleriana; Blumenstück; Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

      Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana may be the most popular large-scale choral work written in the 20th century, but it is never performed as Orff intended, and few people even know what his intentions were. Orff saw the piece as what we would now call a multimedia extravaganza, incorporating dance and a light show and a general spectacle that would make the secular songs from the Benediktbeuern Manuscript into just one part of a larger production. Furthermore, the entirety of Carmina Burana was intended as only the first part of a vast three-part choral meditation on and affirmation of earthly and very secular love.  Each of the three parts used different ancient sources, with the manuscript for Carmina Burana actually being the most recent: Catulli Carmina uses Latin poetry predating Christ, and Trionfo di Afrodite reaches all the way back to the ancient Greek poetry of Sappho.  The three works were composed between the mid-1930s and the early 1950s and gathered under the umbrella title Trionfi in 1953.  The styles of the three pieces are quite different – Orff’s own style had changed significantly during these years, and the words being set in any case require very different handling – and any of the three can stand alone, which is one reason Carmina Burana tends to be heard, in strictly concert guise, all by itself. It is also the grandest, largest and loudest of the three works, with the most-infectious rhythms and the least dependence on texts to make its point.  But even though Carmina Burana is quite marvelous by itself, it does gain something by being heard in juxtaposition with Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, which expand on it thematically and in which some of the rhythms and some of the concepts recur in new contexts.  So it is a pleasure to have Ferdinand Leitner’s version of Trionfi available in remastered sound as a very fine three-CD set.  Leitner (1912-1996) was a noted opera conductor, and his handling of Trionfi is decidedly operatic, most notably in Carmina Burana, which comes across with great scope and intensity here.  This is an analog recording from 1973; the other two works are also analog recordings, both dating to 1975.  The remastering is quite good, retaining the rich fullness of Leitner’s interpretations while bringing clarity and fine balance to the delicate parts of these pieces – of which there are many.  Unfortunately, the set provides no lyrics for any of the works and offers no way to download them – a state of affairs that is especially unfortunate for Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, which are more text-dependent than their more-famous predecessor and in fact have some wonderful poetry underlying them: the love poems of Catullus and Sappho have been justly famous for thousands of years, and there really is a reason for that (it is worth noting that Orff himself created the text for the “framing tale” of Catulli Carmina).  It is important for listeners unfamiliar with these works to find the texts for the second and third parts of Trionfi in order to get the full effect of the music – or the almost-full effect, since the theatrical elements are of necessity missing on these CDs.  The sections are available, one at a time, through Start with the Praelusio section of Catulli Carmina at and continue from there. For Trionfo di Afrodite, start with Canto Amebo di Vergine e Giovani a Vespero in Attesa della Sposa at and continue section by section.

It is long past time for a modern, all-digital recording of Trionfi, and this is one classical work that would greatly benefit from presentation on DVD if it were staged as Orff intended.  It seems that the very popularity of Carmina Burana has led to the thoroughly unfair neglect of the two other works in this sequence.  Until that neglect is overcome, Leitner’s very fine recordings, in which soloists, chorus and orchestra all deliver excellent sound and a strong sense of place and time, are very much worth having.  The complete cycle certainly enhances the enjoyment of its single most-famous part.

      Orff is scarcely the sole 20th-century composer known for only a small percentage of his work.  Respighi has a trilogy of his own – Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals – that has tended to overshadow his other compositions; and these works, which like Orff’s Trionfi were written over a considerable time span, are also played as separate pieces more frequently than as a triptych.  Francesco La Vecchia’s survey of Respighi’s orchestral music included the Roman Trilogy with several less-known works in its first volume, and in Volume 2 from Brilliant Classics offers a similar mixture of reasonably well-known pieces with ones that are rarely heard.  Interestingly, Respighi, like Orff, was strongly influenced by olden times in much of the music on this two-CD set, although all the works here are strictly instrumental.  Trittico Botticelliano (1927) was inspired by three paintings by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) in the Uffizi Gallery, while Vetrate di chiesa (“Church Windows,” 1926) reflects four religious scenes and uses elements of modal writing and early plainchant to produce its effects.  These two pieces are reasonably well-known, as is Impressioni Brasiliane (1928), which has contemporary rather than long-ago roots, evoking various Brazilian scenes (including the composer’s visit to a reptile institute) in a comparatively modest way, rather than with the frenetic abandon often associated with musical portraits of Brazil.  If these three Respighi works are at least moderately familiar, the others here are not: the second CD includes Concerto a cinque for oboe, trumpet, violin, double bass, piano and strings (1933), a work in which Respighi channels the concerti grossi of Telemann and Vivaldi; Poema autunnale (1925), a single-movement piece that is pastoral and rather melancholy; and Concerto all’antica (1908), a violin concerto in A minor (here featuring Vadim Brodski as soloist) that shows familiarity with Vivaldi but interprets the tenets of Baroque music rather freely and knits together elements of its first two movements into its third.  All these pieces show Respighi as a skilled orchestrator, and most offer testimony to his preoccupation with the past, both musically and in other ways (his works were often inspired by extramusical events or circumstances).  All are played quite well and quite idiomatically by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, and La Vecchia continues to show considerable sensitivity to and interest in Respighi’s unique compositional voice.

      There is sensitivity aplenty in the fifth volume of the Idil Biret Solo Edition as well. The first three volumes of this ongoing collection on the IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label were devoted to Liszt; the fourth volume and this new one feature the music of Schumann.  Unlike many other IBA releases, the discs in the Idil Biret Solo Edition offer recent recordings: the ones here were made in January 2012.  Biret is a thoughtful pianist, never flashy, with plenty of technique but a willingness to subsume it into the music in order to interpret the works as sensitively as possible.  The major work here is Kreisleriana, and Biret fully brings out the contrasts among the suite’s eight short movements, which are by turns agitated, expressive, stormy, gentle, frenetic and tranquil, ending with a conclusion marked Schnell und spielend (“quickly and easily”) that is anything  but easy, but that Biret handles effectively as a capstone to the work. Blumenstück calls for a very different, much milder approach, being pretty rather than profound or intense, and here Biret is perhaps a bit too staid from time to time, although she does a fine job throughout in the shifting moods that characterize this almost-but-not-quite salon music.  Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival in Vienna”) requires yet another approach, its five movements (two longer ones framing three very short ones) being mostly outgoing and energetic, with occasional gentle interludes to give the work a sense of variety.  Schumann called the work a grand romantic sonata, but his subtitle labels it Phantasiebilder für das Pianoforte (“Fantasy Pictures for the Piano”), and in fact it partakes of both sonata-like and fantasy-like elements, although the latter predominate (there is an extended rondo, typical for a sonata, but it is the first movement here, not the last).  This is not a profound or particularly nuanced work, but it has many charms and a great deal of melodic interest, and Biret explores it with a knowing touch and a sure sense of style.  Like the ongoing Respighi series, the still-in-progress Idil Biret Solo Edition has already produced much excellent and very well-played music and shows every likelihood of presenting even more in the future.

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