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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) and Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Two films: Voyage to Cythera; Attrazione d'Amore
Films by Frank Scheffer featuring Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly, Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen and many others.
Recorded 1999 and 2000.
DVD - all regions

What a pleasure it is to follow this new series by Allegri Films, "Juxtapositions" which puts together different musicians and music. In much the same way that a chemical reaction creates something new, these films bring together opinions that continue to spark off new ways of thinking about music, even after the films have ended. Apart from anything else they show the creative processes by which musicians create their responses to music.

This particular DVD brings together Mahler and Berio, both placed in the context of their place in music history. Both studied the past, though what they created presaged the future. Thus the first film starts with Riccardo Chailly paying homage to Willem Mengelberg, his predecessor in Amsterdam. Seeing Mengelberg’s handwritten notes on his scores intimately captures the Concertgebouw’s great Mahler tradition. Chailly then notes that for Mengelberg, Mahler was "new" music. He praises Mengelberg’s "open mindedness". The film follows the orchestra in rehearsal, playing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, interspersed with comments from the musicians themselves, on how they adapted their traditions to the new conductor. "We had to play with more energy, because he radiated it", said one. An orchestra as superb as the Concertgebouw, said Chailly, was so good and full of potential that conducting it was like "driving a powerful car". Thus the orchestra had much to give even in repertoire new to them, like Varèse’s Amériques. Chailly calls it "genius music". For Chailly, there are conductors who can’t help but do their own thing. He says his approach is to study the past before even starting to interpret. "You can renew only if you know; you must understand and study to be able to makes changes".

The second film, A Voyage to Cythera, however, is much more unusual, and should be the real selling point of this set. It is much more tightly focused, breaking new ground in the idea of filmed music. Cythera in mythology was the home of the goddess of love and renewal, or creative regeneration. Thus the film starts with shots of a strange primordial looking landscape out of which strains of Mahler’s Sankt. Antonius Fischpredigt seem to arise. But it’s Berio’s own transcription of the song, from his Sinfonia. Berio describes his work as an "internal monologue" which makes a "harmonic journey" through the music of the past, to find a new means of expression for the future. To develop his vision Mahler was unusually erudite musically. The film follows Berio around his study, and gradually the camera starts to lurch up and down, like a ship on the waves, while music expands beyond. Nothing needs to be said. Berio is on his journey to Cythera. It also reinforces wordlessly Berio’s comment that all things have their opposites, and modern music navigates between different poles of tonality. Chailly returns, talking about Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Transcription has always been a part of music, refreshing itself with each new approach. Stravinsky’s Noces, for example went through many stages of development. There is some lovely footage of Stravinsky conducting, singing along, immersed in his music.

Berio then describes his aims in Sinfonia. Mahler may be the central figure, but equally integral are the references to Ravel, Strauss, Hindemith, even Stockhausen and Boulez. Berio was looking for a different way of setting text and music, one which expressed duality and fluidity. Just as the music generates constant external references, so does Beckett’s text, turning the very idea of firm reality upside down. In floats a comment from Louis Andriessen: what Berio is doing is like what Ravel did with the waltz, deconstructing and rebuilding, creating an "apotheosis". An artist, he says, is a mirror on his times but disappears in his art. Thus the film technique itself seems to dissolve into constant flux: images of the past appear, and there are short unexplained shots of Haitink, Muti and Boulez. The film seems to be expressing the inner spirit of Sinfonia, following its changing flurries and eddies. As the text says, "For the unexpected is always upon us". The visual technique is somewhat unsettling, yet is in complete harmony with the music and with the ideas it presents. As one of the conductors says, "I don’t like music that confirms what we already know".

As the film ends, you realise that you’ve been on a journey too, travelling along with an excellent performance of Sinfonia, experiencing it on many different levels, just as Berio intended.

Anne Ozorio



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