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Seen and Heard Concert

Prom no.4, Monday 16 July 2007
Luciano Berio, Sinfonia
Gioachino Rossini, Stabat Mater

Janice Watson (soprano)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Colin Lee (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Swingle Singers
Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

The obvious connection one might make between these two works, or perhaps better between their composers, is their Italian nationality. This might well have been a ploy on the part of the Proms, or indeed Antonio Pappano, to lure a greater audience for the Berio Sinfonia by presenting Rossini's Stabat mater. If so, all power to whomever one should credit. It is sad that one of the defining works, indeed classics, of post-war music should require such sugaring of the pill, but such is the harsh reality. (Is it not also sad that we should still find ourselves employing the catch-all title 'post-war' more than sixty years after the fabled 'year zero' of the avant-garde, as though nothing has changed then since then? So much has; yet has Berio, let alone Stockhausen, become any more 'popular' than he was in the 1950s and '60s?) However, there exists perhaps a more interesting, even if unconscious, kinship between these two pieces. Both subvert expectations of what should be entailed by their respective or apparent genres.

In Sinfonia, Berio employed an Italian title to alert us, as if we needed such assistance, to the distancing from the great German symphonic tradition. In the informative programme note, Paul Griffiths pointed to the way in which the work's five movements 'differ not so much in their speed through time as in the kind of time they uncover.' Moreover, 'Sinfonia speaks not with the persuasive individuality of a symphony by Beethoven but as a crowd, clamorous and multifarious.' At the same time, both Beethoven and Berio drew inspiration from and confronted the world in which they lived, and emphatically not just the world of music. One of the most obvious ways in which Berio does this is through the words presented by the amplified voices (here the excellent Swingle Singers, who, in an earlier incarnation, gave both the work's first performance and its British premiere, the latter at the Proms).

Claude Lévi-Strauss's analyses of Amazonian myths (from Le Cru et le Cuit) define the realm of pre-history, identified by Griffiths as the first of his 'kinds of time'. The performers worked well together to impart a real sense of beginnings, of distant rumblings and imaginings, whilst ensuring that we were never quite sure what was what: part of Berio's conception, as he himself put it, of 'the experience of "not quite hearing" ... as essential to the nature of the work'. Another quality I should identify would be the element of meta-commentary: Sinfonia is, amongst many other things, music about music, and music about musical history (or pre-history). There is a definite kinship not only between this movement and the openings of Das Rheingold and Berg's Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, but also with what we might imagine to be the mythical first musical calls from within the rain-forest. (The very different forest of Siegfried and its primæaval murmurs also sprang to mind.) My hearing initially desired greater orchestral definition, but it soon settled down, and I am now inclined to think that the partial inchoateness was deliberate. Intentional or otherwise, it worked.

There was an appropriately luminous quality to the second movement, O King. The pianist and other percussion shone here especially. Griffiths's reference to 'a remembered moment' seemed particularly apt, given the associations with Stockhausen's 'moment form' and beyond him, Webern, evoked by a more pointillist approach. I have always thought of the third movement, in which Berio famously overlays the scherzo from Mahler's second symphony, as like the flow of a river. Here, Griffiths described 'the swirl of impressions and memories as events pass by'. The river, like the first movement's forest, provides an appropriately primæaval foundation for a super-structure of musical allusions (Bach, Ravel, and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier amongst them) and Beckett (The Unnameable). Delivery of the text from the Swingle Singers was once again unimpeachable, and a welcome element of humour was injected by references to 'Rossini's Stabat Mater' and 'Mr Antonio Pappano'. The waltzing interjections were particularly well-handled, as was the wonderful transition into the fourth movement, which one could well believe was about to become Mahler's 'O Röschen rot'. Berio assists the process, by replacing Mahler's words with 'rose de sang', but Pappano and his players somehow conveyed the 'alternative' path that might have been taken. This intermezzo-like movement ('the process of reawakening' (Griffiths)) and the synthetic, open-ended final movement ('all these times together') brought this most Joycean of works to a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion. The latter two movements sounded at times a little less engaged, but this was but a matter of degree. If the Swingle Singers can fairly be said to 'own' Sinfonia, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Pappano are not artists one might immediately associate with Berio, his own association with the orchestra notwithstanding. In bringing it once again to the Proms audience – including a trio of Chelsea Pensioners – they provided an estimable service.

Rossini would have seemed more obviously home territory to them, not least given the avowedly 'operatic' nature of his Stabat Mater; that this was not altogether borne out was somewhat surprising. I had the impression for a little more than half of the work, Pappano was trying to play down operatic associations. For me, however, the glory, dubious or otherwise, of the work is its at times almost surreal approach to setting the 13th-century Franciscan text. The opening, the finale, and a little of what comes in between are tailored, at least to some extent, towards the prayer to Mary at the foot of the Cross. On the other hand, and this is but one example, the sprightly and disturbingly catchy quartet setting of 'Sancta mater, istud agas/Crucifixi fige plagas/Cordi meo valide' (Holy Mother, do this for me,/stamp the wounds of thy crucified Son/firmly in my heart) is irremediably bizarre. The writer of the programme notes, whose very defensiveness draws undue attention to the 'problem' without ever quite calling it by its name, issued the following apologia: 'Composers, whether Mozart, Berlioz, or Schoenberg, do not alter their musical language when moving between one musical language and another. It is hardly surprising, then, that Rossini's Stabat Mater sounds like Rossini.' It is not, but it would be profoundly surprising were the Dies irae to sound, when set by Mozart and Berlioz, like 'Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen' or 'Le spectre de la rose'.

I mention this at some length because I wonder whether the first part of the performance was an attempt, even if unconscious, to issue a similar musical apologia. If so, the attempt was misguided. Even the dramatic (melodramatic?) 'Introduzione' sounded underpowered. It is true that much, though by no means all, of the orchestral writing is 'accompaniment', yet it has interest of its own, and deserves to be heard fully. On the occasions when the strings played with greater richness, one longed for more; the exception lay with the 'cellos, who exhibited a beautiful, rich tone throughout. Then, at a point which, accidentally or not, coincided with the cavatina from the finest of the soloists, there was a sea-change, with the orchestra finally given its head: not simply, or even primarily, a matter of volume, but more of expressivity. The subsequent direction may sometimes have been a little too hard-driven, especially in the finale, where the problem was compounded by seemingly unmotivated tempo changes. Nevertheless, the improvement was manifest. It was more akin to what I imagined Toscanini would have done, with little of the profound wisdom of a Giulini, but I was unquestionably grateful for the introduction of greater colour into proceedings.

The chorus sang well, without making an indelible impression. The soloists were a mixed bunch. Colin Lee failed to project his opening line adequately, and never quite seemed to recover. Ildar Abdrazakov exhibited a pleasing tone, though was not especially memorable. Janice Watson, replacing Emma Bell, evinced a greater range of tone, and became more 'operatic' as time went on. Unsurprisingly, however, Joyce DiDonato outshone them all; not for nothing was she given the Beverly Sills award. With an absolute command of style, she showed attentiveness to the shaping of the words (and to their meaning when the music allowed...). Moreover, her tuning remained utterly secure in a performance in which this was far from a given. A low point in that respect was the unaccompanied quartet, 'Quando corpus moriertur'. This is sometimes given to the chorus, and would certainly have been better thus performed on this occasion: some of the tuning was painfully approximate, if that. After that, the frenetic finale was bound to sound better than it might otherwise have done. However, should one, not entirely without justification, consider this to have been a performance centred upon DiDonato rather than, in the case of Sinfonia, upon the work itself, then a greater parity might emerge between these performances.


Mark Berry















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