Antigonae, called a "quasi-opera" by some, is one of those Carl Orff works frequently criticized for not being Carmina Burana; by the time he got around to composing it in 1949, Orff's language had become extremely spare. Orff set large sections of his opera, based on Friedrich Hölderlin's 1804 German version of Sophocles' ancient Greek play, nearly without music, relying on long stretches of unaccompanied, single-note declamation to carry the drama. Orff's instrumentation, deliberately hidden from the audience, was unusual in the extreme: no strings save a rank of 9 double basses, 6 flutes, 6 oboes, 6 muted trumpets, 4 harps, 6 pianos with 12 players, and a large battery of percussion requiring 10-15 members. Not all of these instruments play at the same time, and indeed, the winds have very little to do until the latter parts of Orff's opera. In Antigonae, Orff sought to evoke the heritage of Greek classical drama -- the original inspiration for opera, at least as it was understood in the late 16th century -- with a total absence of romantic gestures such as those present in Richard Strauss' Elektra, creating a rendering more in line with what he felt original Greek drama might have been like, something that by its very nature would tend toward a different kind of subjectivity.
Antigonae is sometimes singled out as a prototypical example of minimalism in Western music, and its shared, common ground held with such postmodern works as Louis Andriessen's De Staat is easy to ferret out, although Orff's connection to minimalist style is accessed more directly in his Orff-Schulwerk cycle. For a work so austere and alien in style, Antigonae has been recorded a number of times, though mostly in versions made before 1960; even the 1949 premiere under Ferenc Fricsay in Salzburg exists on disc, though a 1951 Georg Solti recording featuring Christel Goltz is the most commonly circulated one. This 1958 performance, only published before in part, was recorded in Munich under the direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch and has the benefit of great German soprano Martha Mödl -- whose Bayreuth Festival recording of Parsifal with Hans Knappertsbusch has earned her a special kind of immortality -- taking the title role. And sing she does for quite a long time, right at the beginning of Antigonae, mostly by herself, as the role requires. It is a riveting bit of singing, and one almost feels a bit of disappointment as the men take over for the long middle section which they dominate. The mono recording is of excellent quality for the most part, though there is the occasional passage where it sounds a bit distorted, probably due to wear on the source tape, though this is not much of an issue. Fans of Mödl will certainly want this, as Antigonae offers a generous amount of her singing. As the only version of Antigonae offered in better-than-mono sound is a 1961 Deutsche Grammophon recording led by Ferdinand Leitner and featuring some so-so performances among the men, this Profil historical release still manages to be competitive among recordings of this work.