Orff: Carmina Burana (SACD review)

Hei-Kwung Hong, soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Earl Patriarco, baritone; Gwinnett Young Singers; Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc SACD-60575.

Way back in 2002 when I first reviewed this disc, people didn't know if the SACD or the DVD-Audio high-end format would eventually win the day, or whether, as I predicted, both formats would bite the dust. Well, it turns out that founder Sony Corporation gave up on SACD far sooner than many other record companies did, a number of them still using the format. It was clear back then, however, that the folks at Telarc were counting on SACD and trying to have it two ways; that is, they issued a number of releases like this one both on hybrid SACD's and on standard CD's (in other words, on separate discs). On SACD, there's a layer of the disc that an ordinary CD player can read and on a second layer is SACD material, multichannel surround and two-channel stereo that requires an SACD player to read. And, as I say, Telarc also offered a straight CD-only version of the recording for those listeners with no interest then, now, or ever in SACD.

I did my listening to this Orff disc from the two-channel stereo layer of the SACD, using a Sony SACD player. It sounded fine, almost as good as any of the Telarc SACD's I had listened to previously. It's true the Carmina Burana sounded a bit limp at first until I turned the volume up, but then it came to life reasonably well. The disc's extremely smooth response enables one to set the gain fairly high and still have the sonics come off sounding reasonably good. Unfortunately, I also found the sound rather flat, one-dimensional, in terms of stage depth, and, surprisingly, somewhat bass-shy, something that struck me even more forcibly when I compared it to Andre Previn's 1975 EMI recording of Carmina Burana with the London Symphony (remastered on an Hi-Q audiophile disc). Yes, the older EMI recording was a touch brighter and marginally more ragged at high volume, but because of its more realistic stage depth, it conveyed a better sense of the live experience for me. That was also the case with several other favorite Carmina Burana recordings I had on hand from Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Eugen Jochum and the German Opera Orchestra (DG). All sounded better to me than the Telarc.

Donald Runnicles
As far as Donald Runnicles and his Atlanta Symphony performance is concerned, it's fairly exciting. However, by comparison I again preferred the interpretations listed above. As we might expect, Runnicles and his crew produce a solid reading of this lusty music, but a more flexible rubato in the other performances provided more variety in the proceedings, enlivening the merriness of the tavern drinking songs and, ironically, the courtly love tunes as well. By comparison to Previn, for example, Runnicles seemed to me more than a tad too polished, too sedate, and too matter-of-fact; and surely Orff, writing in 1936, intended these thirteenth-century snippets to be more robust and just a shade more, shall we say, vulgar? To my ears, the Previn, Blomstedt, Ormandy, and Jochum performances still offer a better balance of refinement and impropriety.

Anyway, none of this may be to the point, the actual reason for buying the disc being to listen to the sound of Carmina Burana from five speakers in a surround-sound system, plus a subwoofer, which, unfortunately, I never got to hear. That requires multichannel SACD, which, as I've said, I don't have. Maybe a reader with the appropriate playback equipment could render us a opinion on the disc's multichannel sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa