Since moving to the conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic some years ago, Sir Simon Rattle has been advocating live recording with a vengeance. I admit this often produces more lively and spontaneous results, having a real audience during the performance, but it doesn’t always do a lot for a recording’s sonics. Such is the case with Rattle’s release of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, that perennial favorite of music lovers the world over, as well as movie directors and television producers.
First, the performance. The soloists, chorus, and orchestra seem at first glance letter perfect, as we might expect from these people, and Rattle’s interpretation is vigorous, to say the least. The reading is, however, perhaps a touch too slick for its own good, lacking some of the earthiness the work might have found by its being slowed down a tad rather than taken at such extreme tempo changes. Rattle’s slowly and softly articulating one section of the music and then blasting it out fast and loud in the next can be exhilarating for a while but ultimately taxing on the mind and the ears. Nor do his singers always provide him the best support.
Created in 1937 and based on thirteenth-century manuscripts in Latin, French, and German, the Carmina Burana songs divide into three parts covering the pleasures of springtime, drinking, and love, all within the framework of “Fortuna,” luck or fate. Under Rattle, everything seems quite energetically pursued, but, as I say, those drastic changes of pace tend to undermine the whole enterprise.
The live sound, made in the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2004 does not appear to me as convincing as most studio recordings, the way it’s miked making some instruments fade into the background or suddenly jump to the forefront. The solo voices come off best, very clear and natural in their presentation, but the orchestra fares more poorly. The sound, quite dynamic, is rather bright in the climaxes and fortissimos, somewhat muted at other times, and slightly thin overall. Frankly, despite the newer digital origins of the Rattle disc, I found it inferior to the older, analogue recordings of Andre Previn (EMI) and Eugen Jochum (DG), whose interpretations seem to me more refined, more robust, more consistent, and, yes, better recorded.