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Orff: Orpheus / Schirmer, Baechle, Selinger, Stiefermann, Munich Radio Orchestra

Release Date: 08/30/2011 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777656   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Carl Orff
Performer:  Marcus EverdingKay StiefermannMichaela SelingerJanina Baechle
Conductor:  Ulf Schirmer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Symphony OrchestraOrpheus Choir Munich
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ORFF/MONTEVERDI Orpheus. Klage der Ariadne 1 Kay Stiefermann ( Orpheus ); Michaela Selinger ( Eurydice ); Janina Baechle ( Messenger , Ariadne 1 ); Tareq Nazmi ( Guardian of the Dead ); Ulf Schirmer, cond; Munich Orpheus Ch; Munich RO Read more class="ARIAL12"> CPO 777 656 (SACD: 72:31) Live: Andechs 7/7–10/2010

Carl Orff was one of a number of composers, including d’Indy, Respighi, and Hindemith, who produced a performing version of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal L’Orfeo in the first decades of the 20th century when the work was little known outside of academic circles. This labor of love occupied Orff from his first contact with the Renaissance Italian while he was a student until he completed Orpheus’ s “resurrection in our theater today” in 1940. In all, he created three versions. The first version in 1923 was an attempt at a historically accurate realization of Monteverdi’s sketchy score, using period instruments where available. Audience resistance to the unusual instrumentation, and the musicians’ difficulties with the unfamiliar techniques, led him to rework the entire score for modern instruments in 1929–30, retaining only lutes and anachronistic harps and basset horns to add antique color. This second version received some performances, but Orff elected to revise the opera further, cutting it down to the core storyline, eliminating characters and more than one-third of the music, compressing many remaining sections, adjusting melodic lines to fit the German translation, and even changing the ending into a duet for Orpheus and Eurydice before she returns to Hades. The result is the far-from-authentic but potently dramatic 1940 version that is performed here.

This is a live recording from the 2010 Orff in Andechs Festival, the second recording of the work to be released. The pioneer was a studio recording made in 1972 by the Munich Radio Orchestra’s big brother, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Eichorn. Compared to that rather unbuttoned endeavor, this recording led by Munich Radio Orchestra music director Ulf Schirmer is thoroughly refined while still utterly theatrical. Generally spacious in tempo—though never as slow or fast as its predecessor—and played with a warm, blended string tone with discreet use of vibrato, Schirmer finds a middle ground between the overtly romantic and the antiquarian, recalling the state of Baroque performance in the 1950s and ’60s just as Harnoncourt was setting interpretation of early music on a new path. The Munich Orpheus Choir, an ensemble of about 55 singers known primarily for a cappella singing, matches that style with vibrant sound, clear enunciation, and fine intonation. Schirmer and company are particularly effective in highlighting Orff’s brilliant juxtaposition of sonorities, in creating a feeling of inexorability in the unfolding of the drama, and in the contrasting of the grand and the intimate.

The soloists are a bit lighter of voice than the starry cast of the earlier release. Still, Kay Stiefermann as Orpheus carries the bulk of this venture with a well-focused baritone both flexible and powerful enough to hold its own in an hour of demanding music, the over-singing in Gebt mir Antwort being one of the very rare exceptions. More typical is the affecting plangency of the singer’s Lamento Eurydike and his exquisitely moving plea to the Guardian of the Dead. The Guardian, Orff’s replacement for Charon and all of the company of Hades, is sung with dark menace by bass Tareq Nazmi, a young singer with a strikingly rich voice, uniform throughout his considerable range, though he does not attempt the low D at the end of his scene. The two contrasting mezzo-sopranos are nearly as impressive. Brighter-voiced Michaela Selinger is a touching Eurydice, most affecting in her farewell duet with Orpheus, though a tendency to lock into pitches a bit late gives her singing an unsettled feel. Janina Baechle, the messenger who bears the tidings of Eurydice’s death to Orpheus, turns squally under pressure at the beginning of her scene, but soon redeems herself with a reading of great warmth and feeling. She has no such problems in her (and Schirmer’s) splendidly dramatic reading of Orff’s German-language reworking of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna. Klage der Ariadne , with Orpheus and Tanz der Spröden, a similarly updated version of Il ballo delle ingrate , comprise Lamenti , Orff’s final form for his Monteverdi tribute. Can one hope these forces will complete the triptych?

Eichorn and his forces did so in 1974, in recordings that are still available on the Arts Music label. While these earlier recordings have been superseded in a number of ways, most notably in terms of engineering, the performances themselves have a vitality and exuberance that provide an appealing contrast to Schirmer’s more polished approach. Orff supervised the Eichorn recordings, and provided the spoken introduction to Orpheus . One may therefore assume that the fuller-voiced, more overtly operatic portrayals of Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Karl Ridderbusch, and Rose Wagemann met his approval. However, the few noted concerns aside, the newcomers come up well in comparison, and their realization of the drama is in no way inferior for being more subtly voiced. Anyone taken with Orff’s performing versions of these works may well want both accounts, as they offer complementary views of Orff’s vision. Collectors for whom sound quality is important, especially those with surround-sound capability, will want this new cpo issue. It serves as a fine point of entry to this little-explored corner of early-music performance history, and is a highly moving experience in its own right.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


This strange bird is worth hearing. While the last 35-or-so years have been involved with discovering--through research and guesswork--how early music actually sounded, this is a reminder of a time when early music had somehow lost its relevance. In the 1920s Carl Orff, in an attempt to rejuvenate or revalidate Monteverdi, took the composer's Orfeo, had it translated into German, eliminated some "extraneous" scenes, and re-orchestrated it. He continued to fiddle with it, and what is recorded here is the version he completed in 1940. It will be blasphemy to many, but as I stated above, it's worth hearing.

Precisely how radical are the cuts can be seen by the playing time--just over an hour. Orff cut half the solo roles (shepherds, etc.), the whole final act, and much of the Underworld scenes; in addition, he has re-ordered some of the music. Harmonically it is most daring--not "daring" à la Schoenberg, but "daring" as a piece of very-late Romantic music. The orchestra plays the way you would expect Haydn symphonies to have been performed in the 1940s; the tone is lush. Conductor Ulf Schirmer does not overdo it--if he had chosen, he could have opted for even more vibrato. He treats the music like Orff rather than Monteverdi, and that strikes me as absolutely right.

The orchestra and chorus are excellent; Orff's decision to orchestrate adding prominent harps and lutes (here recorded very vividly) is a bow to the 17th century, though not a very deep one. Kay Stiefermann is a fine Orpheus, singing expressively, with dark, handsome tone, if not with the absolute involvement that Hermann Prey brings to the role in a 1972 ARTS release (reviewed by David Hurwitz--type Q7833 in Search Reviews). Janina Baechle's dark mezzo is remarkable as the Messenger, and she is just as impressive in Ariadne's Lament, which fills out the last 12 minutes of the disc--also in Orff's arrangement. Michaela Selinger, another mezzo, brings pathos to the role of Eurydike.

This was recorded live in Germany in 2010 and the sound is excellent. The audience, obviously bound and gagged, intrudes with applause only at the end of each piece. Because of the extra filler (the Klage der Ariadne) and superior sound, I'll vote this the first choice, but Hermann Prey and Lucia Popp are mighty impressive on the ARTS release as well. In its own way, this is a stunning piece of music. CPO supplies track listings and interesting essays--but grievously, no libretto or translation.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Orpheus by Carl Orff
Performer:  Marcus Everding (Speaker), Kay Stiefermann (Baritone), Michaela Selinger (Mezzo Soprano),
Janina Baechle (Soprano)
Conductor:  Ulf Schirmer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Orpheus Choir Munich
Period: 20th Century 

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