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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Sinfonia (1968) [58’32"]
Ekphrasis (1990) [18’23"]
London Voices/Terry Edwards,
Göteborgs Symfoniker/Peter Eötvös
rec. Gothenburg Konserthuset, April 2004. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5380 [77'12"]

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.

In Ekphrasis, 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.

Anne Ozorio



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