Saturday, November 30, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 571: Orff

I’m right in the middle of a four day weekend which has had a little bit of everything (music, friends, Arkham Horror, football).  I’m just home from a lovely lunch out with Sheila and ready to add ‘music review’ to the list.

Disc 571 is…. Carmina Burana
Artist: Composed by Carl Orff and performed by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra

Year of Release: recorded in 1975, but composed in 1935 (music) and the 13th Century (words).

What’s up with the Cover?  It looks like a bunch of very old playing cards – I think depicting the Jacks of each suit three times.  I expect they were trying to get across the “whimsical nature of fortune” theme of a lot of the music.  I appreciate the effort, but the result is a bit busy and unfocused.  I might’ve gone with just a King and a Joker, or maybe a picture of the monastery where the words to the songs were first found.

How I Came To Know It:  From the 1981 classic movie “Excalibur,” which used portions of “Carmina Burana” as its soundtrack. I love this movie, and the music was great so I set about finding what it was.  Once I discovered it was “Carmina Burana” I went to A&B Sound and asked the guy in the classical section to hook me up with a really good recording of it – this is what I got. 

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one composition by Carl Orff.  Similarly, this is my only collection of 13th century Bavarian manuscripts.  So on both counts, it can’t really stack up.

Rating:  4 stars

Carmina Burana is composed of some thirteenth century lyrics (in Latin), discovered in the nineteenth century and set to music (by Carl Orff) in the twentieth.  You’d expect a piece eight hundred years in the making to be pretty good, and “Carmina Burana” doesn’t disappoint.

From the opening boom of the kettle drums, you know this composition is going to be big, bombastic and full of pounding energy.  “Carmina Burana” is all of these things, particularly the opening and closing track, which sing about the rise and fall of a person’s luck in a way that makes chance seem like an approaching apocalypse.

No surprise that these sections were used in the movie “Excalibur” to make all the horse-riding, and questing and nation-building take on added weight.  If you haven’t listened to these sections of “Carmina Burana” while you watched King Arthur and his knights ride into battle one final time – trees spontaneously bursting into bloom at their mere passage – then you’re missing out. In fact, this stuff is such great movie soundtrack material it is used in action movie trailers even where the song doesn’t appear in the actual movie.

These sections were also used as a kick sample for industrial dance song by a band called Apotheosis back in the early nineties complete with an “Apocalypse Choir” mix, which is a pretty good description of all the crazy Latin chanting in the original as well.

The “fortune’s a bitch” sections are not the entirety of “Carmina Burana” however, just one part of it.  The original words uncovered in the monastery ranged into a lot of different subject, chief of them love and sex.  These sections dominate the central part of the record, and range from beautiful and melodic opera solos, to lively choral numbers, all of which I found very uplifting on my walks to and from work.

When translated, the lyrics are pretty sexy considering their origins.  From section XVII:

“A girl stood
In a red shift
If anyone touched it
The shift trembled

“A girl stood
Like a rosebud
Her face was radiant,
Her mouth in flower.

Eh…yeah indeed.

The range between the softness of certain sections and the pounding symphony of others is so large that it is a piece of music best enjoyed on headphones.  Even so, it is hard to get the volume at the right level – it will always either be too quiet in places or too loud.

In fact, if you really want to fully appreciate it, see it live.  In 2003 I was fortunate to see “Carmina Burana” performed at UVic’s University Centre Auditorium (my thanks to our friend Chris D. for suggesting it).  It was absolutely amazing, with a full orchestra and a choir of around one hundred people.  Seeing it live you truly appreciate the power of the composition; it is like heavy metal for the classical set.

Since you can’t do that every day, however, you have other options ranging from sitting and listening to the whole composition on CD or even just one short song used to buoy the grand climax of an Arthurian legend.

Best tracks:   In the absence of repurposing sections for a movie, you can’t really single out individual songs on a classical recording so just listen to the whole thing.  Or if you just want to get blown away with some bombast, check out the Apotheosis dance hit.

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