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Berio: Sinfonia, Ekphrasis / Peter Eotvos

Eotvos / Goteborgs Symfoniker
Release Date: 07/31/2012 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 001708302   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Luciano Berio
Performer:  Mark WilliamsPer Enoksson
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gothenburg Symphony OrchestraLondon VoicesSwedish National Museum Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Luciano Berio (1925–2003) was the master-composer of the second half of the 20th century who took the greatest inspiration from remaking the work of others. One manifestation of this was the most obvious, i.e., that his music was deeply involved with the setting of texts. But he was also fascinated with other musics, and constantly engaged with them in a creative dialogue. His early Folk Songs is a classic example, in fact a very nervy gesture in an era (the early 1960s) when abstract modernism reigned supreme. And throughout his career he made fascinating orchestrations of works from the repertoire, sometimes Read more remaking them almost beyond recognition, sometimes maintaining the respectful stance of a crafty orchestrator (an excellent new release along these lines has Ricardo Chailly conducting a program of such transcriptions on Decca 476 2830, including Rendering , Berio’s realization of the Schubert Symphony No.10, notable for his personal interjections in those passages left incomplete in the original).

And towering above all his output is the 1968 Sinfonia, a work which marks the true origins of musical Postmodernism (a movement already looking historical; its corresponding bookend looks like William Bolcom’s magisterial Songs of Innocence and Experience, completed in 1985). The Sinfonia is in five movements, and features a vocal octet as a concertino group, creating a constant verbal flow throughout the work. I remember hearing it over the radio while still in high school, not long after its original release on a Columbia LP by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (who commissioned it). I was stunned and frankly confused; I thought that perhaps something had gone wrong with the radio, and it was simultaneously picking up more than one channel. In a way, that isn’t very far from the truth, because Sinfonia is one of the savviest essays ever on modern information overload.

The work can seem like a grab bag at first, and only over time does its connective tissue—conceptual and musical—begin to emerge. The first movement is based around texts from Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropological text Tristes tropiques. The second is an orchestration of an earlier chamber work, O King , which slowly constructs the name “Martin Luther King” from its constituent phonemes. The third movement will be discussed in a moment; after it, the work starts to run backwards, with the fourth movement being another slow meditation like the second, using the text “Rose de Sang” (“Rose of Blood”). And the fifth movement, written after the premiere, resumes the entire work in an accelerating round of associations, almost like matter rushing into the crushing density of a black hole.

And that third movement—it is the truly revolutionary one, the one that even today can jar and challenge the very idea of a unified work of art. Using the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony as a base, Berio overlays it with a host of musical quotations, his own connective commentary, and a non-stop gab and songfest by the vocalists that verges on cacophony (yet somehow becomes more logical every time one hears it). This is the mother of all works written “onto” other works, the height of Berio’s dialogue with not only the past, but also the present and future.

Thus, the work stands as one of the greatest orchestral masterworks since Sacre du printemps. It is heartening to see that it is continuing to appear in both concerts (though, alas, far more in Europe than in the US) and on disc. The Bernstein premiere recording remains an important document, but of course it’s an LP artifact now, and also is missing the fifth movement. The great competitor is Pierre Boulez’s version with the Orchestre Nationale de France on Erato 88151. Peter Eötvös and the Gothenburgers have their work cut out for them, because Boulez’s interpretation has been the gold standard since 1986. It is clear, incisive, and powerful. Having said that, Eötvös gives as good as he gets in the competition. Indeed, this new recording has several things going for it. First, it has great sound, marginally more spacious than the Erato. Second, its tempos are all slightly faster than Boulez’s. This is not de facto an advantage and, indeed, in the first movement, there’s greater clarity and space that results from Boulez’s timing. But over the course of the piece, Eötvös develops increasing momentum. The final movement in particular has a mounting, thrilling momentum that finally convinces me definitively of its rightness as a necessary conclusion. Finally, the interpretation of the third movement is not only idiomatic, precise, and passionate, it’s also—funny! At last, the wit in the piece emerges. I admit part of it might be baritone Mark William’s (the leader of the ensemble in the movement) English accent, which gives a slightly arch cast to the whole affair, but I think it’s also very much in the global pacing.

If there is any fly in the ointment, it’s in the pairing. The Boulez has Eindrücke , a 10-minute nervous but static essay with a single melody surrounded by sharp interjections. Eötvös pairs Ekphrasis , Berio’s final orchestral work (1996), and while it is full of a shifting palette of diaphanous colors and textures, it feels—at nearly 20 minutes—about twice as long as it needs to be. One gets the impression with much of Berio’s later orchestral music that he grew very fluent with tossing off an extremely polished product, which nevertheless sounds somewhat “occasional.” As far as such goes, Eindrücke strikes me as the more successful dessert to Sinfonia ’s main course.

The bottom line, though, is that this is a superb release, a grand tribute to a masterpiece nearing its 40th birthday. If you have the Boulez already, you don’t need to rush out to get this one (unless like me, you think the more interpretations of Sinfonia, the merrier). The Erato version is still a grand achievement, and the aforementioned pairings issue makes it even stronger. But if you do not know the work, or do not have a recording, I heartily recommend DG’s new version, which serves this landmark piece admirably.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
Reviewing original release

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Works on This Recording

Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra by Luciano Berio
Performer:  Mark Williams (Bass), Per Enoksson (Violin)
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra,  London Voices
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1968-1969 
Date of Recording: 04/2004 
Venue:  Konserthuset, Gothenburg, Sweden 
Length: 32 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Continuo no 2 "Ekphrasis" by Luciano Berio
Conductor:  Peter Eötvös
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Swedish National Museum Chamber Orchestra,  Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Date of Recording: 04/2004 
Venue:  Konserthuset, Gothenburg, Sweden 
Length: 18 Minutes 23 Secs. 

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