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Orff: Carmina Burana - Tilson Thomas

Orff: Carmina Burana - Tilson Thomas

Dutton  CDLX 7369 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Orff: Carmina Burana^
Beethoven: Elegischer Gesang*, Op. 118, Opferlied*, Op. 121b, Bundeslied*, Op. 122, Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt*, Op. 112, Incidental music to King Stephen*, Op. 117
Gershwin: An American in Paris***, Rhapsody in Blue^^/**

Judith Blegen^ (soprano)
Kenneth Riegel^ (tenor)
Peter Binder^ (baritone)
Ambrosian Singers*
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Boys Choir^
Cleveland Orchestra^
Columbia Jazz Band**
London Symphony Orchestra*
New York Philharmonic***
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor & piano^^)

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Review by John Broggio - January 7, 2021

Another rather eclectic mix of music, the sole thread throughout is that of Michael Tilson Thomas' conducting.

Some of this music making has stood the test of time rather better than others to these ears, so will the reviews attention first on the more successful accounts.

Partly because they were "inflicted" on me by my mother, so I hold some sentimental attachment to them, but mainly because they are still wonderful performances, the Gershwin takes pride of place for me. An American in Paris finds the New York Philharmonic in great form, clearly enjoying every moment of Tilson Thomas' direction - no mean feat given the history of this orchestra with Bernstein amongst others. It is a remarkably fresh performance, everything sounds "just right" and there are no histrionic distortions applied at any time. It is also one of the most radical (and successfully so) multi-channel orchestral recordings currently available. To those unfamiliar with the (originally quadraphonic) recording, it is perhaps best summarised as what Tacet would do if they had a bigger budget(!) The dispersion of the car horns, as well as a carefully thought out general orchestral layout, adds auditory spice and clarity while retaining a cohesive sound picture although those wishing for a more traditional sonic presentation will find the account on Dvorak: Violin Concerto, Gershwin: An American in Paris - Ferschtman, Venzago a worthy alternative.

What follows afterwards is arguably even more successful: the use of Gershwin's own piano role with a jazz band to come as close as reasonably possible to the first performing version; this is a very welcome corrective to some of the more extravagant versions for full orchestra. The sound here reveals the limitations of the player piano used, good though it may be, which is a little "dull" in timbre (think of a sound roughly approximating to a ever-so-slightly muffled Bösendorfer). However, the actual timing and interaction with the superb solo players is beyond praise. Even though I would be very reluctant to dispense with the more often heard version played by Kempf (Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue - Kempf, Litton), this account deserves to be on the shelves of anyone who loves Gershwin. The presentation, in common with the rest of the compilation, is very "distributed" in multi-channel; like An American in Paris, the overall picture is pleasingly cohesive and the dispersion around the listener lends an appreciation that can be lost from normal sonic presentation. The reproduction of the original sleeve note for Rhapsody in Blue goes into some detail about the challenges faced by and overcome by the team (musical and technical).

Orff's Carmina Burana takes up almost all the playing time of the first disc and the layouts of the musicians are varied for each section of the performance; this is always with the listener in the centre of an imagined circle of sound and is arguably the most recommendable Carmina Burana in multi-channel sound available. Stereo-only listeners may be more tempted by the classic account from Eugen Jochum (Orff: Carmina Burana - Jochum or Orff: Carmina Burana - Jochum). Although the myriad of aural presentations may be thought of dizzying, that is also reflected in some of the tempi chosen by MTT. Where the tempo is "moved on" (Ecce gratum & Estuans interius are perhaps the two clearest examples), it is largely successful but there are moments where the ensemble is on the verge of becoming ragged. For some listeners, this will be thrilling but others may be averse to such treatment. The orchestral and choral contributions are beyond praise both superbly disciplined but also managing to retain the lyricism of the score (even when pushed so hard/fast). Judith Blegen's contribution is rightly acknowledged in the notes and, when not challenged so much as in Estuans interius, Peter Binder's baritone is wonderful; the smaller tenor contribution from Kenneth Riegel manages to be rich and sound a little strained at the same time - his performance will not be everyone's cup of tea! That aside, this performance breathes new life (again) into what can easily turn into a purely "sonic spectacular"; this is very definitely a spectacular presentation but is fortunately much more than that.


The most mixed performances are those from a release entitled "Beethoven: Late Choral Music". Here the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus are the protagonists under Tilson Thomas' baton. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these accounts are likely somewhat different from how MTT would approach this repertoire of late judging by his Beethoven recordings from San Francisco. The orchestral sound is predominantly violin heavy/woodwind light by the standards of today; beyond that the french horns are very "polite" and the use of soft sticks for the timpani greatly reduces their rhythmic impact. This is particularly felt in music at faster tempi but in slower music, for instance the opening to Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt, the performances are wonderfully atmospheric (and foreshadows parts of Mahler's second symphony). Although all the performances in this compilation are from another era, these sound it musically (apart from the radical sonic presentation, one could well imagine Karajan performing this music in a similar manner).

The sound from these mid-1970s recordings has stood up remarkably well and, providing the aural presentation appeals, will reward the listener with many hours of pleasure.

The individual rankings are as follows:
Gershwin - 5 (performance), 5 (sound)
Orff - 4.5, 5
Beethoven - 3.5, 3.5

Copyright © 2021 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

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