I confess to having an ongoing, undiminished, and fairly mindless fascination with Orff's Carmina Burana. Its unrelenting ostinati; its primitive, propulsive rhythmic drive; its unsubtle tonic-dominant harmony sans any trace of chromatic coloring in short, its very "dumbness" is what seems to attract. It's a sort of invigorating mind-rester: primally engaging, and no thought required.
And it's weird. Very weird. The text, I mean, its weirdness sharpened by being written and of course sung mostly in Latin. I've an especial fondness for the number easily the weirdest of the lot "Olim lacus colueram"; a weird Latin text set to music appropriately weird to match.
Once I lived on lakes,
once I looked beautiful
when I was a swan [reads the English translation].
and roasting fiercely!
I'm now turning on a spit.
I'm now burning fiercely over the pyre.
The servant now serves me up.
and roasted fiercely!
I now lie on a plate,
and can fly no more.
I see bared teeth!
and roasted fiercely!
That's sure one weird bird all right.
There are a veritable cartload of Carminas presently available on CD with four of which I'm familiar. Three of these give a more than adequate account of the work and each has its inevitable pluses and minuses.
And then there's this reading; a splendid EMI remastering of a splendid 1958 Capitol stereo LP by Leopold Stokowski with the Houston Choral, Houston Youth Symphony Boys' Choir, and Houston Symphony Orchestra. It's still, to my ears, a reading nonpareil. (It's paired on this recording with a reading of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, about which reading the less said the better.)
Carmina seems like it's been part of the standard rep forever, but when this recording was made in 1958 the work was only four years old in terms of its performance in America, its American premier given in San Francisco in 1954, and its first New York performance given in that same year under Stokowski's direction. That Stoki has a special affinity and feeling for this work is sensed immediately from the very first chorus, and throughout the entire reading that sense never flags. He seems to get everything spot-on right in even its smallest nuance as regards tempi, dynamics, vocal inflection, and phrasing, and the effect is electric.
Lord knows I'm no Stoki fan generally which in my day was enough to get one run out of Philadelphia on a rail were one reckless enough to admit to it in public. But of all the recorded readings of this work of my experience Stoki is the only one to get everything right sans any minuses. He draws from the at that time less than world-class Houston forces performances that the best of the era would have been proud to have produced, and draws from the soloists Virginia Babikian, Clyde Hager, and Guy Gardner performances to match. A truly sterling reading.
I've seen the score for this work only once, and that some fair time ago, but even that quick perusal told me that Stoki takes some, um, liberties with what's there written. Typical Stoki, and typically egregious, generally speaking. But each such liberty taken by him in this reading is rather heard and experienced as merely a correction by him of an editor's or printer's typo, or of an original oversight by the composer. Strange to tell, but true. Or at least I find it so. Case in point: the rapid crescendo transition made by Stokowski from the line "Ave mundi rosa" in the chorus "Blanziflor et Helena" to that chorus's closing couplet, "Blanziflor et Helena / Venus generosa," which transition in the score, if memory doesn't fail me, is marked with a full stop. Though that rapid crescendo transition isn't in the score, when heard, one can't help but feel it should have been.
One critic would have it that Carmina is "toxic" music that will make Nazis of all who succumb to its primitive charms. A more idiot notion can hardly be imagined, and no more attention should be paid it than should be paid the notion that one who is not master of his domain, to borrow the Seinfeldian locution, will go blind as consequence. And so what if Orff himself was a Nazi as has been alleged. If true, that's Orff's reputation's problem, not mine or yours or Carmina's.
This EMI remastering is a tough-to-impossible CD to find new, but one well worth the search.