As one of the most popular of all major choral works, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is well represented in available recordings.
If you choose to own only one recording, Ozawa's most recent version (Philips 422 363- 2) is a winner. Every aspect of the performance is exuberant and energized, colorful and alive. The Shinyukai Choir sings flawlessly—there is consummate precision in pitch, diction, blend and musical shaping and direction of phrase—and yet, this is a performance that has no hint of being over-controlled. Appropriately, the affect is fresh and youthful. One should note that the choir sings this performance from memory, and the resulting tightness of ensemble (all eyes are on the conductor all the time!) is stunning. The soloists are all top-notch, with Thomas Hampson's abbot thoroughly arresting. Edita Gruberová sings seductively and ease and control from the depths of the In trutina to the soaring Dulcissime. There is also an excellent commercial video that was filmed live in concert close to the same time as the studio audio recording was made, though the video features Kathleen Battle as soprano soloist rather than Gruberová. Sonics are excellent with a fairly close presence, though good spatial perspective is maintained.
Herbert Blomstedt's recording with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is a strong contender in a crowded field (London 430 509-2). As Penguin puts it, the scope is "grand" and "opulent," and all the performers seem to be "enjoying themselves hugely." The spirit and vigor of the performance lay to rest any preconceptions of Blomstedt as an intellectual if somewhat detached conductor. All this is especially pleasing, given that the contract situation for this recording was close to "we'll do a Nielsen cycle with you and your orchestra if you record a digital Carmina for us." Happily, there is imagination and verve in this performance, and Blomstedt emphasizes to great effect, the contrasts of color, affect, and dynamic. The trio of soloists are uniformly strong, and the childrens choruses are excellent. An enthusiastic recommendation for the local team!
Since its release, André Previn's 1975 reading on (EMI CDC 7 47411 2) has always remained at or near the top of the recommended list. Though not always the cutting edge in precision, in variety of choral tone color and energetic presentation, the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus is unmatched. The tenors' Ecce gratum, while not the most beautiful, is indeed the "blaze of color" that the text proclaims. Sheila Armstrong's soprano is beguiling and inviting. Her In trutina is understated and ravishing, and her Dulcissime is honey-toned, open and easy all the way to the high D. Baritone Thomas Allen is at his best in this recording, his Abbot's song arrestingly dramatic and his Estuans interius characteristically dark and burning. Only tenor Gerald English's roasting swan song is uncomfortable—but then how would you feel if you were a bird being roasted for dinner? The boy's choir from St. Clement Danes Grammar School lends a colorful and earthy contribution to the proceedings - not at all the typical English boy's choir sound. This recording is a wonderful example of an older analog recording that sonically outshines much of its more contemporary all digital competition. The sound is brilliant but not hard, spatial characteristics are excellent with front to back imaging quite wonderful, and the spotlighting of orchestral soloists from the ranks of the London Symphony Orchestra is handled in a most subtle and tasteful manner. 25 separate tracks on the CD make for easy navigation in this highly sectionalized piece. Previn also has a new version recorded in 1994 (Deutsche Grammophon 439 950-2) which I have not yet had the opportunity to audition.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos presents a rhythmically vital performance—perhaps the most "live" sounding (spontaneity-wise) of all the studio recordings currently available. This 1965 recording (EMI CDM 7 69060 2) was produced in conjunction with London performances which utilized the exact same forces at the same time. The New Philharmonia Chorus sing with an uncanny rhythmic assuredness, accommodating Burgos' flexible tempi without any hint of constraining the conductor from carrying out his wishes. Lucia Popp is an especially sweet-timbred soprano, and the tenor, Gerhard Unger brings what Penguin characterizes as "Lieder-like sensitivity" to his tavern scene solo. Baritone duty is handled admirably by Raymond Wolansky except for the Dies, nox et omnia which is stylishly sung by John Noble. The Wandsworth School Boy's Choir sing beautifully, although they sound a bit out of place—something like an Anglican cathedral choir transplanted to bawdy 13th century Bavaria. As Penguin notes, the CD remastering is not entirely successful, with a hard, glassy edge to the sound not at all evident in the excellent vintage LP (Angel 36333, if you enjoy hunting the used record stores).
Robert Shaw's 1981 recording (Telarc CD-80056) arguably boasts the most polished choral singing among current releases. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus sing with consistent energy and poise, though with a more homogenized and uniform (and somewhat less characterful) presentation throughout than their English rivals above. The team of soloists is consistently strong, though recorded somewhat flatly and unnaturally closely relative to the chorus and orchestra. Soprano Judith Blegen suffers the least from this unkind treatment while baritone Håken Hagegard does not fare as well. Tenor William Brown displays more control, especially in the register changes, than Gerald English does on Previn's recording. The Atlanta Boy Choir holds its own against any of its European rivals and in fact, display more sensitivity to ensemble than do Previn's boys. Shaw's tempos are lively though there is not the rhythmic flair and flexibility that Ozawa and Burgos display. Unfortunately, the CD is divided into only four tracks (each track is indexed by separate section within the larger movements) so that searching for specific sections can become somewhat tedious. The liner notes offer a new scholarly translation of the text prepared by Jeffrey Dubin of the Goethe Institute in Atlanta at Shaw's request.
Other excellent versions are offered by Muti—intense and fiery (EMI CD: CDC 7 47100 2), Jochum—splendor and excitement (Deutsche Gramophon CD: 423 886-2), and Slatkin—power and weighty strength (RCA 09026-61673-2)