Notes and Editorial Reviews
Music which rewards the adventurous listener richly.
Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond; Martha Mödl (
); Carlos Alexander (
); William Dooley (
); Fritz Uhl (
); Marianne Radev (
); Paul Kuen (
); Joseph Traxel (
); Kurt Böhme (
); Lilian Benningsen (
); Bavarian RSO & Ch
PROFIL 09066 (2CDs: 143:06) Live: Munich 1958
Every collector knows Orff’s
. Many are acquainted with the
. Fewer know that Orff, after World War II, produced three theater works that aimed to create a contemporary equivalent of the ancient performances of Greek tragedy, heightening the texts with his paradoxically archaic-sounding modern music, and with dance.
first in 1949 and then
Oedipus der Tyrann
in 1959 make use of the highly expressive 1804 German adaptations of the Sophocles plays by Friedrich Hölderlin. (
, from 1968, sets Aeschylus’s Greek.)
As in the setting of Catullus poems, the orchestra is stripped of much of the color that makes
so popular, while retaining the visceral impact of a large ensemble.
requires six pianos, four harps, six each of flutes, oboes (three doubling English horn), and muted trumpets, nine double basses, and a large battery of percussion. The combination makes a wonderful noise in full cry, though Orff uses the whole orchestra sparingly and, much of the time, quite delicately. Opera singers of the first rank are required, but it is not an opera as such. The text is generally sung with little accompaniment, frequently at the extremes of the range, in an intensely rhythmic chant. Piano and tuned percussion are used to establish key, add color, and punctuate the line. Occasionally greater forces are used to amplify emotion, as in Creon’s and Antigone’s pivotal scenes, and to accompany the chorus. There are, however, lengthy stretches of heroically declaimed, sparsely accompanied German. This may sound monotonous, but throughout the many hours spent listening to three versions of the two-and-one-half hour work in review, plus a recording of the later
, I did not find it so.
I say this despite little German comprehension, and the recording’s lack of texts, or even a reasonable synopsis. One may secure a translation of Hölderlin’s verse, which Orff set line-for-line, but at more than half of the cost of the recording. Doing so
add to the appreciation of the work, yet in truth, with some knowledge of the story, Orff and the extraordinary performers make this a moving experience without translation. For those fluent in German, the wonderful diction and clear recording should make a libretto unnecessary.
If lack of text is a weakness—and in fairness, this is common to all releases—it is the only one. If one is going to issue a recording of such an obscure work, one best make it a superlative one, and that is just what Profil has done. On disc, the work has been almost exclusively the property of the Bavarian Radio. After the 1949 premiere at Salzburg, recorded but currently out of print, all but one CD release has been made in Munich either by the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, or the State Opera. Georg Solti’s 1951 recording on Orfeo is distinguished by the incomparable Creon of Hermann Uhde, but is put out of contention for a general recommendation by some rather scrappy orchestral and choral execution. Ferdinand Leitner’s is a studio recording from 1961, notable for the conductor’s subtle and nuanced pacing, which gives a spiritual quality to a performance that emphasizes character delineation. Inge Borkh is a vulnerable Antigone, heartbreaking in her grief and moving in her preparation for death. The recording, which I admire greatly, is currently available only as a download, so the discovery and release of this Sawallisch live recording from 1958 is particularly welcome.
Sawallisch was recording a fair amount of Orff in this period: a 1956 monaural EMI
that rivals Jochum’s classic account (DG) for acute conducting, and splendid recordings of the two fairy tale operas,
, also for EMI in 1956–57. He was therefore an old hand at Orff by the time he led this performance. He does not linger as much as Leitner—his performance is more than a quarter-hour faster—exchanging some poignancy and understatement for an implacable sense of impending doom. Martha Mödl’s imperious Antigone fits into this approach perfectly, as does Carlos Alexander’s pitiless Creon and Fritz Uhl’s desperate Haemon. Paul Kuen is a fine Mime-like Guard, but must give pride of place to Gerhard Stolze’s conspiratorial reading for Leitner. William Dooley sings the Chorus Leader movingly, and the men of the Bavarian Radio Choir are the finest group to record this music, even preferable to their subsequent outing three years later. The remaining singers are equally fine, with special mention necessary of Kurt Böhme’s sonorous Messenger.
The recording itself is a marvel, showing almost no sign of its age. It is monaural, but with subtle ambient processing that provides some sense of space without adding artificial reverberation. (The booklet is silent on the matter, but the effect is pleasantly audible, and visible when scoped.) The sound is detailed and immediate, with remarkable percussion transients, solid bass, and the voices placed naturally in relation to the instruments. (Leitner achieves some of his delicacy and intimacy through forward placement of the voices.) The audience is almost completely silent. In all, this is the most desirable of the recordings of this work, a superb introduction to Orff’s too-seldom explored Greek tragedies, and a gripping dramatic experience.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
One of the most striking evenings I have ever spent in an opera house was in Stuttgart in 1980 watching a double bill of Carl Orff operas. In that instance
Die Kluge coupled with Orff’s orchestration/arrangement of Monteverdi’s
Klage der Ariadne. Both works struck me then as eminently theatrical whilst occupying a very similar sound-world to parts of
Carmina Burana. That heritage, both timbral and aesthetic is shared by the work under consideration here -
Antigonae. Sticking with the classical analogy; Janus-like (OK I know its Roman not Greek!) this work occupies an important place in Orff’s oeuvre as it sits on the cusp between the populist primitivism of the works mentioned above and the declamatory theatre works -
Oedipus der Tyrann (1959) and
Prometheus. Antigonae dates from the end of the 1940s when Orff was still coming out from under the cloud of his perceived Nazi sympathies. As part of his post-war defence he had claimed (fictitious) membership of the German resistance movement
Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose). Apparently some see parallels between the classical tragedy of Antigonae and the execution of Sophie Scholl (another young woman who defied the state to do what she perceived as right) - one of the key members of
Die Weisse Rose - by the Nazis in 1943. By coincidence 1943 was the year of
Die Kluge’s composition.
Whatever the ultimate truth of this work’s origins it makes for a curious opera. Orff acknowledged as much by describing the piece not as an opera but as a
Vertonung, a "musical setting" and indeed the work comes across as a sequence of almost ritualised encounters. How much is lost in the translation from stage to audio only I do not know but in this form it works rather well. Certainly so when it is projected as powerfully as in this historical performance from Bavarian Radio in 1958. Sonically it is remarkable and historically benefits from the presence and praise of the composer who wrote warmly to Martha Mödl who plays the eponymous heroine: “again I express my thanks and sincere admiration for your great Antigonae. Some time will pass before ‘the masses’ and the press (not all, but most of it) are capable of grasping and appreciating such a performance ...” Sadly, as someone who cannot speak German the absence of a complete libretto or even a detailed synopsis makes the following of the dramatic narrative all but impossible. Here is the synopsis as copied from Wikipedia (the one in the liner-notes is even shorter!):
The opera begins in the early morning following a battle in Thebes between the armies of the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. King Kreon, who ascended the throne of Thebes after both brothers are killed in battle, decrees that Polynices is not to be buried. Antigonae, his sister, defies the order, but is caught. Kreon decrees that she be buried alive in spite of the fact that she is betrothed to his son, Haemon. The Gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, express their disapproval of Kreon's decision, which convinces him to rescind his order, and he goes to bury Polynices. However, Antigonae has already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Kreon arrives at the tomb where she was to be interred, his son, Haemon, attacks him and then kills himself. Finally, when Kreon's wife, Eurydice, is informed of Haemon's and Antigonae's deaths she, too, takes her own life. At the end of the opera Kreon is the only principal left alive.
The libretto is in fact a line for line setting of Friedrich Hölderlin’s German translation of Sophocles’ original play of 442 BC. This results in an opera running only a few minutes shy of two and a half hours. Much of the text is declaimed in the quasi-sung style Orff called
singstimmen. This shares certain of the characteristics of
sprechgesang but remains more tonally centred. Punctuating these extended tracts of declaimed text are instrumental interludes which one would have to call minimalist - track 3 CD 1 gives a good idea of this. Orff uses a very particular instrumentation: 6 flutes (all doubling piccolos), 6 oboes (3 doubling Cor Anglais), 6 trumpets, 4 harps, 6 pianos (all played 4-hands), 9 double-basses and a huge percussion section requiring 10-15 players. Theoretically this could produce a vast wall of sound but Orff uses it very sparingly - usually punctuating the text with sharp-edged ‘events’ either high or low in pitch. Indeed the woodwind, harps and brass are held in reserve and used very sparingly indeed - the vast bulk of the instrumental accompaniment being reserved for the pianos and percussion. The male choir - very much in the style of the
In Taberna section of
Carmina Burana - seems to have the function of a Greek chorus, commenting on the unfolding drama. So typical of Orff is their semi-sung rhythmic exultant declamation of text over throbbingly insistent piano/percussion ostinati. It’s a sound both sophisticated and primitive but thrilling in either case [CD 2 track 5 - is a perfect example].
It is to the enduring credit of the performers here with such minimal melodic material and the absence of any extended explanation of the action that they manage to hold one’s attention as powerfully as they do. Try the opening to Act 2 [CD 1 tracks 9-10]. I love the menacing male choir and Paul Kuen’s vibrant tenor is ideally suited to Orff’s penetrating high lines. Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch is now regarded very much as one of the old school but it is easy to forget his contribution to the contemporary music scene of fifty or so years ago. I do not have access to any other performances for comparison’s sake but this sounds compellingly authentic. He was the conductor on the famous studio recordings of
Die Kluge and
Der Mond with Schwarzkopf and the Philharmonia at about the same time as this performance; 1957 original release but now just re-released on EMI at a silly price. As a record of some fine singing too it takes some beating; all of the main roles are powerfully and dramatically sung. Checking the catalogue there have been several performances released on CD but only one seems to have derived from a studio recording - that on DG featuring Inge Borkh in the title role - which has been praised for its charismatic performances. It is not clear if the recording under discussion is a studio/radio recording or a live performance. I suspect the latter - there is a little extraneous audience sound - so perhaps a concert rather than a stage performance. Mödl had performed the role before - that recording with Fritz Wunderlich in the supporting cast (was there ever a more flexible tenor!) is still available from Archipel; it’s a live performance from Stuttgart in 1956 and you can’t help feeling that this role is one that she has both lived with and inhabits fully. Try CD 2 track 4 for an example of her total commitment to the drama of the role.
I find the later Orff harder to warm to - the Karajan led
De Temporum Fine Comoedia from 1977 sits on my CD shelves gathering dust - just the 25-30 percussionists needed there. However this work is instantly more essentially dramatic. For sure you could argue that Orff is a one-trick pony as far as the sound-world he creates but conversely he is far more than a one-work wonder. Given the extended declaimed text this is an opera/performance piece that would require an idiomatic translation to claim a toe-hold in a non-German speaking opera house but with an appropriate staging and charismatic leads I could imagine this making a compelling evening in the theatre. Have
any of Orff’s operas/stage works been professionally staged in the UK? - I don’t know. Certainly
Antigonae is a far weightier work than the two fairy-tale pieces mentioned earlier and they are closer still to the sound-world of
Carmina Burana. Even so, I have been really taken by this work. I could see it capturing the imagination of the same kind of English National Opera audience who respond to Philip Glass or John Adams. I would have to say that in my humble opinion it is superior to either.
Full marks to Hänssler for releasing this performance. The sound quality is absolutely first rate with little if any allowance having to be made for the age of the recording or presence of an audience. The essay in the liner-note is good but the omission of extended synopsis let alone libretto is little short of scandalous. This is being released at mid-upper price and the documentation should reflect the cost. Given the literal setting of the Hölderlin text it is possible to find that online and refer to it while following the performance. I tried to see if there was a libretto available via the Hänssler website but had no luck following a fairly cursory search. For those who no longer wish to leave their choice of Orff to ‘fortune empress of the world’ this is music which rewards the adventurous listener richly.
– Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Antigonae by Carl Orff
Carlos Alexander (Baritone),
Fritz Uhl (Tenor),
Marianne Radev (Mezzo Soprano),
Martha Mödl (Voice),
Martha Mödl (Mezzo Soprano),
William Dooley (Baritone),
Paul Kuen (Tenor),
Josef Traxel (Tenor)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1941-1949; Germany
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