ORFF: Die Kluge / Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (King); Reiner Süss, bass (Peasant); Magdalena Falewicz, soprano (Peasant’s Daughter); Horand Friedrich, bass (Jailer); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Man with Donkey); Siegfried Lorenz, baritone (Man with Mule); Harald Neukirch, tenor (1st Vagabond); Wolfgang Hellmich, baritone (2nd Vagabond); Hermann Christian Polster, bass (3rd Vagabond); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1980)
ORFF: Der Mond / Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Narrator); Fred Teschler, bass; Horst Lunow, baritone; Helmut Klotz, tenor; Armin Terzibaschian, bass (Four Young Men who Steal the Moon); Wilfried Schaal, baritone (Peasant); Hans-Joachim Hegewald, speaker (Mayor); Paul Glahn, speaker (Innkeeper); Reiner Süss, bass (St. Peter); Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1970)
ORFF: Carmina Burana / Celestina Casapietra, soprano ; Horst Hiestermann, tenor; Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone; Dresden Boys’ Chorus; Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1974)
ORFF: Catulli Carmina / Ute Mai, soprano (Lesbia); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Catullus); Jutta Czapski, Günter Philipp, Wolfgang Wappler, Gerhard Erber, pianists; Rundfunkchor Leipzig & Percussion of the Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1971)
ORFF: Trionfo di Afrodite / Isabella Nawe, soprano (La Sposa); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (La Sposo); Renate Krahmer, soprano (Corifea/Soprano I); Horst Hiesterman, tenor (Corifeo); Reiner Süss, bass (Corifeo); Regina Werner, soprano (Soprano II); Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (Baritone solo); Rundfunkchor Leipzig & Berlin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1975)
All of above: Berlin Classics 0300927BC
These famous recordings of Orff’s operas and “profane cantatas” have all been issued on LP and CD before, first singly and then Die Kluge and Der Mond in a 2-CD set, by Eterna, Philips and Berlin Classics. Since I had never heard them before, however, I thought it would be good to review them, as I like most of Orff’s music written before Oedipus der Tyrann, which is a dead-sounding piece of cow turd.
Herbert Kegel (1920-1990), whose name was barely known in America when these records came out, was an East German conductor who established a high reputation for himself interpreting the music of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg). Many German critics were amazed when he took an interest in the “simplistic” music of Orff which, as we all know, was the great-grandfather of Minimalism. Orff’s modus operandi, after he wrote the brilliant early opera Gisei – Das Opfer (see my review here), was to take a note or a short motif and repeat it with slight variations in the rhythm (or in different octaves) over several bars. What sounds on the surface like annoyance turned out to be surprisingly popular, even during the Nazi era when more harmonically advanced music—like the Second Viennese School—was banned as “decadent.”
Kegel was known for being absolutely meticulous when it came to following the score. He conducted neither too fast or too slow, but as much as possible exactly what the composer wanted. Thus in these performances, one will hear (as I did) tempos that sometimes seem a shade less quick than other recordings and, in Carmina Burana, less raw power than is normally given to the music, particularly since the early 1970s when the Seiji Ozawa recording on RCA Victor created a sensation. In their place, however, you will hear a truly luminous quality to the music that is often ignored and some of the finest singing ever lavished on Orff’s music.
Thus Die Kluge, which comes up first in this set, is not quite as visceral as the superb 1970 recording with Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick, Thomas Stewart and Kurt Böhme, conducted by Kurt Eichhorn, but it’s wonderful to hear the orchestra and singers in such perfect synch that the latter sound like an extension of the former. Kegel pays much more attention to infinite gradations of volume in ensemble scenes than his predecessors. In addition, this is surely one of the best-sung performances on disc; every voice is golden in its own way, particularly soprano Magdalena Falewicz whom I had never heard of before. She has an even purer voice than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the old EMI set with Wolfgang Sawallisch, often thought of as the gold standard of Die Kluge recordings. Tenor Eberhard Büchner is also quite fine as the man with the donkey. Generally speaking, I find Eichhorn’s performance more theatrical and, due to the faster tempos more exciting, but Kegel’s more correct, measured pace brings out some felicitous qualities of the music that escape both Eichhorn and Sawallisch. This is the only work in this set, alas, that benefits from digital recording, the others all preceding its invention.
But if Kegel’s Die Kluge has its peers, his performance of Der Mond surely does not. From the very first note, Kegel creates an aura of magic and light, and this feeling permeates the whole enterprise. The earliest of the recordings presented here, it benefits from a bit more reverb around the orchestra and singers, which helps the ambience. My regular readers know that I normally hate this kind of sound, but in this work—as in Britten’s War Requiem—it actually helps the music. Moreover, the extra roominess does not negatively impact the crispness of the orchestral sound, which is fortunate, for in this opera Orff gives us a feast of high strings and light percussion that add to the delightful sound of the music. And once again, the vocal performances are flawlessly executed. Büchner is the Narrator, his voice even fresher in 1970 than a decade later, and bass Reiner Süss, who sang the Peasant in Die Kluge, is also heard here as St. Peter. Once again, Kegel knits the vocal and instrumental forces together in a way that escapes most other conductors, and there is enough “stage business” here and there to give the whole thing the feeling of a live performance.
As mentioned earlier, this performance of Carmina Burana is gentler than we’ve become used to, but then again, so were the Eugen Jochum recordings (1953 and 1967) made under the composer’s supervision. Personally, I like Kegel’s performance better than Jochum’s because it has more forward momentum. It also emphasizes the syncopations in the music better than both Jochum and Ozawa. Where the music seems to lack “power” is where Kegel does not lay heavily into the basses or the bass drum, which most conductors from Ozawa onward have done to extremes. The delicate choral passages have a much better feel to them than in most other recordings, and his soloists are all first-rate. He even gets a nice, rough peasant feel in the Tanz. (I still recall the late Klaus Tennstedt screaming at the Cincinnati Symphony string to “play rougher! This is a peasant dance, not a minuet by Mozart!”) Interestingly, after hearing Carmina Burana after Die Kluge and Der Mond, one notices that Orff used a far fuller orchestral palette in this work than in any of the pieces that followed it. I wonder why he chose to cut back in the later pieces.
As for the soloists, they’re very good but, except for tenor Hiestermann, bettered elsewhere. Soprano Casapietra has a wonderfully pure voice, but both Evelyn Mandac (Ozawa) and Arleen Augér (Riccardo Muti) have a warmer sound and more secure top notes. Baritone Stryczek sounds just a little thin and, oddly enough, exhibits a lisp he did not show on Die Kluge. I prefer Jonathan Summers with Muti. But this is splitting hairs; Kegel’s conducting is fantastic and he holds everything together extremely well.
I personally like Kegel’s Catulli Carmina better than Jochum’s, despite the latter using all-star soloists Augér and Wiesław Ochman. Once again, there is a forward momentum in Kegel’s conducting that just isn’t there in most other performances, and it really helps to hold this more episodic work together. In addition, both soprano Ute Mai and tenor Büchner are in really excellent voice here, so much so that I didn’t really miss Augér nearly as much as in Carmina Burana. Interestingly, where as Kegel’s Die Kluge and Carmina Burana were just a bit on the relaxed side, this is the zippiest Catulli Carmina I’ve ever heard.
Other critics have noted that Kegel got more out of the third part of Orff’s trilogy, Trionfo di Afrodite, than any other conductor, and I second that opinion. This moves as briskly and smoothly as Catulli Carmina, whereas other recordings just seem to drag and bog down. Once again, I attribute this to Kegel’s unique ability to get the orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists all moving together on the same line of music. Soprano Isabella Nawe is a shade less good than Casapieta and Mai—her voice is not as beautiful, and there is a hint of strain in the voice production, although her soft high singing is clear and unforced—but by and large she does very well, particularly in the florid passages. The other soloists are all excellent in every respect, and I really appreciated the way Kegel got his chorus to constantly sing in a transparent manner.
I’m more than a little surprised that Kegel didn’t make a recording of Antigonae, which was surely his kind of music. We may never know why, but at least what we have here is for the most part quite precious and irreplaceable.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley