When a good modern
composer and conductor like Peter Eötvös
takes on Berio’s great masterpiece,
you pay attention. What will one great
musical intelligence tell us about another
seminal composer of our time? How will
he shape the music in the light of his
own vision? Listening to Eötvös
conduct Sinfonia is an exhilarating
experience. The conductor worked closely
with both Berio and Boulez, when Sinfonia
was still a "new" work. Moreover,
his collaborator on this recording is
Terry Edwards, great of stature not
only physically but in terms of reputation.
Edwards was involved with the early
Swingle Singers with whom Berio created
Sinfonia in the late 1960s. Edwards
is one of the great innovators in modern
vocal music, the man who built up the
London Voices and the Covent Garden
Chorus: his love for contemporary music
has inspired a whole generation of singers.
This recording, the first new version
for several years, is authoritative.
When Sinfonia was first
written, it very much captured the spirit
of the age. 1968 was the year of social
and artistic revolution, an age of renewal
and optimistic new beginnings. Berio
saw music history as a great river of
human experience, absorbing tributary
streams from many different composers,
from Bach to Stockhausen. Like a river,
the different strands were combined
and reflected, so the great forward
pull of the whole surged ahead ever
more strongly. Not for Berio the idea
that music arises from nothing and means
nothing: for him the richness of Sinfonia
is informed by a deep understanding
of music history and a powerful optimism
for human creativity.
Berio marks three of
the five parts of Sinfonia "sans
indication", placing responsibility
on the subtle almost spontaneous interplay
of voices and instruments. In this version,
the voices have a somewhat stronger
hand, compared to the Berio and especially
the Boulez recordings. Eötvös
brings out an almost Mass-like sense
of incantation, on the other hand which
creates a feeling of contemplation,
which the others don’t have, despite
their drama. It’s a gentler, softer
approach that highlights the idea, mentioned
later in the text, of "voices taking
their turn to be heard". While
Berio was composing, Martin Luther King
was murdered. King symbolized the idealism
of the times, so his death was both
a profound counterpoint and also a spur
to "Keep going! Keep going!",
one of the themes in the famous third
movement. Here, the emphasis on the
voices pays dividends. Mark Williams,
the baritone, carries the brunt of interpretation.
His is a warm, sincere-sounding approach,
anxiously vulnerable. It fits in well
with the surreal text. Is the person
commenting on a show? Is it compulsory?
Is it a show or is he himself the show?
Reality turns inside out. The bitter
irony and political undertones of earlier
versions is gone, but then ours is no
longer an age of protest and direct
action. The references to the role of
art are there, of course, but Williams
does not spit out "Bread"
with the fervour of his predecessors
caught up in the agitprop of 1968. Nonetheless,
while this version lacks the sharp political
darkness of earlier versions, it plays
up the internal structures. You can
hear "Daphnis and Chloé
written in red" and fleeting references.
The line passes from voice to voice,
from voice to instrument, from soloist
to group. This is very much a communal
exercise, where all work together –
the way the voices cry "Ah!"
is particularly exhilarating. Perhaps
Eötvös and Edwards are acting
out the democratic ideals implicit in
the text even though they don’t make
as much of it on the surface. Similarly,
Eötvös doesn’t go for the
powerful architectural impact of the
crescendos that Boulez does so well,
because Edwards wants the words to stand
out more. You can clearly hear a crescendo
rising in Williams’ voice as he speaks
"and after each disintegration,
the name of MAYAKOVSKY hangs in the
clean .... air ....". It both refers
to the way the score reshapes continuously,
and also to the symbolism of Mayakovsky
himself. In focusing on that one word,
this version opens a huge vista of ideas,
about revolution, politics, art and
death. Berio has built in the musical
equivalent of pop-up windows throughout
the piece: Eötvös and Edwards
have found of the best.
Eötvös has only the orchestra
to paint with, but it’s a big "only".
In this seamless work, he comes to grips
with its layers of different sounds,
each expressing a theme of its own while
also interacting with the others. So
much is happening, despite the lack
of obvious landmarks, that it takes
a conductor and orchestra with the ability
to keep the layers distinct. The structure
is revealed by gradual shifts and coloration.
Per Enoksson, the solo violinist, pushes
the music forward. It is a non-vocal
counterpart to the "Keep going!"
in Sinfonia, further reinforcing the
bizarre effects in Sinfonia’s references
to actual performance in which the companion
piece is mentioned in its text. Ekphrasis’s
oscillating sound patterns translate
in the visual mind as "shimmering".
Like light on water, the surface is
just the beginning.
Not a first choice
Sinfonia, but certainly one worth getting
for a different and authoritative approach.