I’m not a big fan of Orff's music, but audiences seem to love it and you hear it used in movies all the time. Recorded in 1974, this performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra remains one of the best. EMI reissued it at mid price in their “Great Recordings of the Century” line in 1998, then in their “Masters” series in 2010, and now Hi-Q Records give us a JVC XRCD24 K2 audiophile remaster in 2012.
For those few of you who may not be familiar with the work, Carl Orff (1895-1982) based Carmina Burana on the collected songs and poems of medieval minstrels. A booklet note tells us “Carmina Burana --‘Songs of Benedikbeuern’--was the title given to a thirteenth-century manuscript collection of songs (mostly in Latin) found in a monastery at Benedikbeuern in southern Bavaria in the 19th century, by J.A. Schmeller, when he published it in 1847. Orff came across the collection in 1935, and was immediately struck by it, particularly by the illumination of the Wheel of Fortune reproduced as a frontispiece, and conceived the idea of setting the songs to music.”
The assemblage of tunes contains several dozen short vocal pieces, plus orchestral accompaniment, grouped together in four sections. The music is vivid and vibrant, especially in Previn’s hands, and it speaks mainly of the yearnings and pleasures of the flesh. For example, “Sweet, rosey-hued mouth, Come and make me well.” Or “Love flies everywhere, He is seized by desire. Young men, young girls, Are rightly coupled together.” Or “The girl without a lover, Does without any pleasure.” Or “If a boy with a girl Tarries in a little room, Happy their mating.” And so on in its earthy way; I think you get the idea. Ably supported by a boys’ choir, the soloists have a field day with lyrics like these. Previn brings out the rustic joy of the music with an obvious love for it, almost reveling in the vulgarity.
There were two advantages of the 1998 and 2010 EMI discs over the company’s very first CD mastering: Superior sonics and a cheaper price. The 1998 audio quality (the same mastering repeated for the 2010 disc) was very slightly smoother and a touch fuller than the first CD transfer. Being over three-and-a-half decades old, the recording was analogue, of course, but the Abbey Road Technology (ART) remastering from 1998 removed some of the edge one may have noticed in the earlier full-priced CD; not all of it, but enough. Now, the sound is even better in Hi-Q’s audiophile remastering, and it makes Previn’s interpretation, full of love and lust and other sensual delights, an even greater delight.
EMI recorded the music in Kingsway Hall, London, in December of 1974, and the sonic quality was well up to EMI’s customary high standards of the day. Hi-Q use the JVC XRCD K2 disc processing system and had JVC remastered and manufacture the disc in Japan. The XRCD K2 system is a meticulous technique that begins with the analogue signal digitized directly into K2 24-bit, sent to JVC for playback via Digital K2 to eliminate jitter and distortion, converted using K2 Super Coding to 16 bit, and encoded using a DVD K2 laser with JVC’s Extended Pit Cutting Technology, the operation controlled by a K2 Rubidium Clock supposedly over 10,000 times more accurate than a conventional crystal clock. What all this means is that the process is about as precise and accurate as you can get in transferring an analogue tape signal to compact disc.
As usual, I put the Hi-Q disc into one CD player and the latest EMI issue into another, changing them out from time to time during my comparison to ensure I was listening to the discs and not the players. What I heard did not surprise me, although it was not a night-and-day difference, just a subtle improvement in the sound of the Hi-Q product. The EMI appeared a tad forward and bright, especially during the predominately vocal sections, while being a touch veiled, too. The Hi-Q was just that much clearer and more dynamic. Remember, the differences I heard were not the kind you might even notice except on direct A-B comparison. Impact, transients, and bass were also tauter on the Hi-Q, and highs sounded better extended.
This is not to suggest that because the Hi-Q disc further clarifies the sound that it makes it any less forward or bright; it’s just makes it a bit more open and transparent. Surprisingly, perhaps, the biggest improvements I noticed were in the quieter moments of the music, the wider dynamic range and greater lucidity of the Hi-Q product effecting a better low-level response.
If you already own one of the EMI Previn discs and like it well enough to think it warrants an upgrade in sonics, the Hi-Q release may be just the thing you’re looking for. Moreover, if you don’t already own the recording in any form, you might consider Hi-Q if you have a really super playback system and very deep pockets because the Hi-Q doesn’t come cheap.
The only other recordings I can think of that compare favorably with Previn’s are Blomstedt’s with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Ormandy’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Jochum’s with the German Opera Orchestra (DG). Yet Previn has the definite advantage in sound if you go all the way with the Hi-Q remaster. Besides, Hi-Q Records package the disc in a very substantial and beautifully illustrated Digipak, with note pages fastened book-like inside. As always, it’s a first-class presentation.