ORFF/ MONTEVERDI: Orpheus; Klage der Ariadne for mezzo-soprano and orchestra – Janina Baechle, mezzo-soprano (Botin, Ariadne)/ Kay Stiefermann, baritone (Orpheus)/ Michaela Selinger, mezzo-soprano (Eurydike)/ Tarique Nazmi, baritone (Watchman of the Dead)/ Marcus Everding, speaker/ Orpheus Choir, Munich/ Munich Radio Symphony/ Ulf Schirmer – CPO multichannel SACD, 777 656-2 [Distr. by Naxos], 72:31 ****:
Carmina Burana is so wildly popular that Orff’s other music lives in the shadows of its reputation. And the truth is that none of Orff’s other works so skillfully and rightly captures the cultivated simplicity of his pioneering compositional style. Yet Orff’s attempts to recreate the unity of the arts that early opera composers hoped to achieve produced some very interesting results. You may never get a chance to see Der Mond or De Temporum Fine Comoedia on stage, but they have a unique impact even when only heard via recordings.
It’s not surprising that one of Orff’s abiding enthusiasms was for the music of Monteverdi and that one of his earliest projects involved the music of the early-Baroque master. After all, the first opera composers turned to ancient Greek theater—with its mix of drama, pageant, dance, and music—as the model for their endeavors, so Monteverdi was a natural conduit for Orff’s artistic ambitions. Orff first mounted his reworking of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1923, for a public that was far less sophisticated musically than today’s audiences, with a half-century and more of historically informed performance practice as a part of their shared experience. The result was consternation on the part of Orff’s first listeners. Undiscouraged, Orff revised his conception twice, in 1929 and 1940; this recording is based on the 1940 version.
Orff subtitled his Monteverdi adaptations “in free new design” and wrote that they represented “a resurrectio in our theater today.” So historic fidelity was not a part of Orff’s scheme; instead, Monteverdi was to be updated to meet the dramatic and musical expectations of modern audiences. That his audiences didn’t get it may either be indicative of Orff’s being ahead of the times—or on a slightly wrong track. Or maybe a little of each is true. Orff rightly appreciated the qualities of Baroque opera and forecast its resurrection in the last half of the twentieth century. And like Liszt, who tried to give wider distribution to music he admired—whether Beethoven symphonies or Verdi operas—through his piano arrangements, Orff managed to create works that have intrinsic value and interest apart from the originals that he arranged. The same could be said of Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. It’s interesting to hear what a later master did to “improve” and make more relevant to contemporary audiences Handel’s lean orchestration. On the other hand, “interesting” doesn’t draw me back terribly often to Mozart’s Messiah or to Orff’s Orpheus.
To be fair, Orff’s work is much more a rethinking of the original, resulting in a pared-down version in which extraneous elements are sacrificed to a presentation of the bare narrative. Orff also substitutes a more contemporary-feeling tragic ending for Monteverdi’s happy one, with Eurydike lost to Orpheus forever, which is also more truthful to the original myth. Still, for me, the mix of Monteverdi’s bald declamatory style and Orff’s relatively lush cushiony scoring is a queasy one. Maybe I’m betraying my prejudices, but Klage der Ariadne (Lament of Ariadne) seems more appealing because the original is a bit more obscure and Orff’s orchestral arrangement is a bit more Spartan. Even Orff’s use of the trombones at one point sounds authentic since from the Renaissance onward that mournful timbre has been used to portray the Underworld and its dark foreboding. Anyway, there are things here for admirers of both Monteverdi and Orff to enjoy, though both composers are heard to better advantage in other contexts.
These are very good performances, with fine singing and touching delivery especially from Kay Stiefermann as Orpheus and Janina Baechle as Ariadne. The Orpheus Choir of Munich seems just the right size to deliver the lilting chorus “Flieht uns der nächtigen Wolken Dunkel” (“Let’s Flee the Gathering Cloudy Darkness”) with nimbleness. I wish the famous opening toccata were conducted just as crisply. It has a too-solemn pace here, maybe because conductor Ulf Schirmer wants to convey the pervasive sense of loss in Orff’s reworking of the original. Whatever, it’s an initial wet blanket that luckily doesn’t hang over the whole enterprise. Elsewhere, tempi seem well-judged, and orchestra and chorus are finely attuned and responsive.
There’s competition in the form of a classic recording on the Arts label by the same orchestra and some of the finest singers of an earlier era, including Hermann Prey and Lucia Popp. I haven’t heard it, but I find the singing on the current disc fine enough that I don’t very much miss those golden voices, and besides, CPO’s live SACD recording is outstandingly good—warm and properly enveloping. If you want to experience Orff’s take on Monteverdi, this new recording is almost certainly the way to go.
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