Tuesday, January 24, 2012

James Levine – Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

Between post romantic expressionism and 20th century avant-garde there were only few composers looking for more natural and clear methods of creating music. Among them was Carl Orff who experimented with mediaeval and renaissance technical constructions, combining its straightforwardness with folk music traditions and simple rhythmic intensity. He was one of 20th century most famous composers and teachers for developing one of widely recognized methods of musical education. How it has often happened in the twentieth century, he owes its fame to one work only. This one is scenic cantata Carmina burana premiered in 1937. Later Orff composed two similar works Catulli carmina (1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953) establishing three part cycle called Trionfi. He is also author of didactic Musik für Kinder and many dramatic works in type of cameral opera or musical on religious and secular subjects from Orpheus (1924), through Die Kluge (1943) to De Temporum Fine Comoedia (Play of the End of Time – 1973).
His creative talents he demonstrated in childhood. He was composing songs and writing children plays. Developing for his personal interests he was also studied natural history focusing on entomology and collecting insects. Born in Munich in 1895 in family of military traditions, he was serving in artillery and during World War I he suffered serious wounds. After the convalescence he back to his before war activities. Learning composition on his own he studied works of classical masters and style of highest rated contemporary composer Richard Strauss. He was forced to solve crucial dilemmas of modern art and living in reality of nazi Germany. And he achieved success both in music and in teaching, even if he is commonly known as composer of one cantata and constructor of the set of instruments called by his name Orff Set.

James Levine – Carl Orff – Carmina Burana (1984)

Orff’s cantata was set mostly to the text in Latin with small parts in Mittelhochdeutsch and Occitan. Work full title is in Latin: Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis. Great success of the work gave composer enough self-confidence to state in letter to his publisher everything he composed before is obsolete and this is the first composition he is reopening catalogue of his works. Power of this music, which sometimes was described as modern primitive, lays in organic relationship between poetic, sometimes naïve and sometimes sardonic texts, emotionally clear and strong melodies, power of choir sound and instrumental, more percussive than symphonic accompaniment. Of course final shape of the work depends of performance style. Good example of American school of reading Orff’s works is the one by James Levine.
In opposition to many European renditions, American artists in most cases are choosing more symphonic and grandiose way of performing Carmina burana. They smoothing the archaic contours of instrumentation and enhancing the expressive layer of the work, and thus form more traditional piece, which is closer to solemn oratorio or even opera than mediaeval mystery. But it’s still beautiful and thrilling. This one of best American-way-performances of Orff’s cantata is 1984 rendition by James Levine conducting Chicago Symphony Orchestra and two phenomenally sounding choirs, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus. Trio of great singers – perfect, deep and warm soprano of June Anderson, characteristic, cold, sometimes sounding really ironically tenor of Philip Creech and strong baritone of Bernd Weikl with powerful acting background gave this performance narrative power in best style of modern music.

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