Eugen Jochum - Orff Carmina Burana - Musicweb International

01 April 2012
Musicweb International
Dan Morgan

Like it or loathe it, Carmina Burana is God's gift to audiophiles; with its pounding ostinati, battery of percussion and racy lyrics it seldom fails to make an impact, either in the concert hall or living room. Which is probably why this classic DG recording and that spectacular Decca/Solti Mahler 8 - review - are included in the first tranche of Universal's high-resolution downloads. Despite patches of compression/overload the Mahler has never sounded better, so I had high hopes for this Orff release, much-praised in its day and boasting a fine array of soloists and choirs.

First, some general comments. Many performances I've encountered - live and on record - bring out the audacity and exuberance of this strange score, turning it into a rollicking, roustabout of a piece. And why not, for it's hard to take these tales of medieval excess and bawdiness too seriously; indeed, most conductors approach it with a metaphorical nudge and a wink to remind us that yes, it's tacky but it's a lot of fun. And that's the very first thing one notices about Jochum's performance; it's dead serious, even dead-pan. Not a hanging offence of course, but it does create moments of uneasiness, where high art and low comedy clash - to bizarre effect.

From those iconic invocations to the fickle moon - much used by advertisers and on film soundtracks - it's clear Jochum's a stickler for rhythmic precision, his assembled choirs singing with the seriousness and focus one might expect of a Bruckner Mass. There's a complementary crispness to the playing that's very impressive, the score's odd colours rendered with unusual vividness and detail. Instrumental separation is startling too, the bass drum, cymbals and assorted gongs emerging from the mix with rare, unforced splendour. The only caveat is that there's a hint of sibilance to the choral singing at times - strings are a little wiry as well - but in mitigation those huge dynamic swings are superbly managed.

Indeed, this re-mastering is so fresh and clean - but not squeakily so - that it's hard to believe the tapes are nearly half-a-century old; proof, if it were needed, that good recordings start with good engineers - in this case Klaus Scheibe. The small choir in ‘Primo vere' has never sounded so lifelike, individual voice so clearly distinguishable, and the ever-reliable Fischer-Dieskau sings most feelingly of the sun's benevolence in ‘Omnia sol temperat'. Other conductors may find more zip and zing in those big choral numbers - ‘Ecce gratum' especially - but Jochum's steady, explicit way with this score yields unexpected dividends. Just listen to the purely instrumental dance of ‘Uf dem anger' and you'll hear it played with a marvellous ear for poise and point.

Thinking back to other memorable recordings of Carmina Burana - Previn, Muti, Mata and Blomstedt in particular - I remember a lot more joy and spontaneity, but I can't recall anything like the degree of musical sophistication on show here. Indeed, subtlety may not be the first word that springs to mind in this most ribald context, but Jochum certainly finds it. Little wonder that this recording bears the composer's imprimatur, as it could be argued that Jochum makes the music sound so much better than it actually is.

Technically there is much to admire in this fine re-mastering; the stereo spread is very believable, adding extra frisson to the opposing choruses of ‘swaz hie gat umbe' and the towering, tinglesome close to Part I. The latter is despatched with nary a hint of stress or strain, which is astonishing for a recording of this vintage. And there's more to delight the ear in Part II, Fischer-Dieskau's ‘Estuans interius' and ‘Ego sum abbas' sung with care and intelligence; which is more than one can say for Gerhard Stolze's buffoonery and risible falsetto in ‘Olim lacus colueram'. This is definitely one of the most uncomfortable episodes in this performance, made more so by the relative restraint that surrounds it.

No such qualms about the various choirs, who sound simply glorious; their rendition of ‘In taberna quando sumus' is so incisive and rhythmically supple, the boys clear and characterful in ‘Amor volat undique', at the start of Part III. As for Gundula Janowitz as the young maiden she seems a little strait-laced - perhaps even a tad awkward - alongside the exquisite abandon of Barbara Hendricks for Mata, but she does sing most beautifully. As for the rest, the double choir in ‘Veni, veni, venias' it's full of zest, although ‘Tempus est jocundum' is a little bit rough at the edges; but Janowitz's blood-curdling ‘Dulcissime' - is she being ravished or murdered? - is
one of those moments where Jochum's otherwise straight reading becomes unintentionally bizarre. The closing chorus is as thrilling as ever, though.

Sonically this Carmina Burana is astonishing, a perfect example of just how good a properly recorded and re-mastered performance can sound. 

A promising start to Universal's download programme. More - lots more - please.

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