Orchestral Realisations by Luciano Berio
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rendering for Orchestra (after fragments for Symphony No.10 in D major D.936) (1828/988-89) [32:36]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Sonata Op.120 No.1 (1894/1986) [23:55]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Six Early Songs from Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (1880-1890/1987) [16:10]
Michael Collins (clarinet); Roderick Williams (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. Grieghallen, Norway, 16-19 August 2011
CHANDOS CHSA 5101 [73:33]
This is a typical Chandos disc; interesting repertoire ripely recorded by fine performers.
It came as a passing surprise to realise that Luciano Berio died nearly a decade ago and so already these 'contemporary' arrangements of 'historical' works are assuming their own patina of the past. Calum MacDonald contributes the typically cogent liner-note and I can do no better than to paraphrase him. Berio, for all his status as Italy's leading contemporary composer experimenting with electronic, aleatoric or serial composition, had an abiding fascination with music of the past. Much of his music entailed the quest to reconcile influences, styles and often direct quotations into his own original scores. This reached a peak in the third movement of Sinfonia which incorporates quotes by some fifty other composers. He also famously produced a completion of Puccini's Turandot radically different from the 'standard' Alfano ending.
The three works on this disc represent what might be termed three facets of the arranger's art. This centres on the degree of arranger input. I would characterise these three styles as respectful, imaginative and interventionist. In turn these correspond to how close the arranger stays with or strays from the original perceived intention. Without doubt Berio was a masterly composer and orchestrator so it is a given that all the music here is exactly how he meant it to be; it will be down to a listening individual's taste how much they feel that Berio's involvement adds to or detracts from our knowledge and/or appreciation of the original.
Simply put, for this listener there is one palpable hit, one interesting attempt and one that I do not yet comprehend. The fact that my reactions match in exact reverse the three 'phases' of arranging outlined above probably says more about my blinkered outlook than anything else.
The 'hit' are the Mahler songs. I have not heard them in their original piano versions but here Berio has chosen a path of creating a sound-world recognisably Mahlerian. Given that even early Mahler lies closer to Berio's own modernist aesthetic than either Brahms or Schubert if there are any Berio-isms lurking in the music they are less obvious to my (ignorant) ear than in the other works. Baritone Roderick Williams is becoming very much a Chandos house artist and it strikes me he sings this miniature cycle with great finesse and subtlety. In the main these are lyrical, indeed intimate settings, from Mahler's Wunderhorn years. Williams sings with ideally artless and unforced beauty. He is helped greatly by some wonderful sleight-of-hand engineering by the ever-reliable Chandos team. Much of the time Williams sings beautifully quietly, floating the gentlest of tones on the barest whisper of breath. Yet the engineers manage to keep his voice in an ideal balance with the detailed orchestral texture without it sounding synthetically forward. Orchestral detail is superb too and the fine Bergen orchestra - the wind soloists especially - revel in their opportunities to shine. Conductor Edward Gardner is wholly at ease with this idiom too. With his years of opera conducting standing him in good stead the fluid accompaniment of the voice is attentive and impressive, pointing and supporting the songs as required. Given the enduring vogue for all things Mahler it surprises me that this has not entered the repertoire where programmers want to avoid the usual options of Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen or Kindertotenlieder.
The Brahms Clarinet Sonata No.1 is "adapted for clarinet and orchestra" by Berio. MacDonald makes the valid point that this post-dates the Mahler songs but in spirit it looks backwards as the Mahler looks forward. For me this falls into the 'interesting but ...' category. Important to say straightaway that soloist Michael Collins is excellent in every respect. In the main Berio has chosen an 'imaginative' or one might say a 'respectful plus' arranging style here. Again MacDonald points out that Berio stays true to the essential harmonic vocabulary of Brahms so none of the added chromaticism that Schoenberg teasingly incorporated into his orchestral version of the Brahms Piano Quartet. Berio does add his own extended introductions to the first and second movements but this is done in a spirit of matching the grander scale of the new orchestral work. Without a score it is hard to know where the Berio ends and the Brahms begins so skilfully is one grafted onto the other. Even his addition of a contra-bassoon is very much in the style of the Academic Festival Overture and as such wholly idiomatic. All of this leaves one asking the questions: is the resulting 'concerto' successful in its own right and if so is this a good performance? My answer to both questions would be that they are good but not great. Hearing a Romantic clarinet concerto - for that is what this becomes - does make one realise that there is pretty much a hundred year chasm in the history of the clarinet concerto from say 1830 - 1930 (a deliberate generalisation but sufficient for this argument's sake). Factor out the Stanford concerto - not exactly mainstream in any case - and there is practically nothing for the virtuoso clarinettist to play in concert. Most of the successful twentieth century concertos have worked by placing the soloist in with a smaller instrumental group where the clarinet's tone does not have to force its way through a full orchestral texture. Here, in the Brahms/Berio he does. Again the Chandos black-magic mitigates this issue to a great degree but for all Collins' skill it all too often feels that he is fighting through the waves of orchestral sound rather than riding them. The resonant Grieghallen adds to this problem with the string writing coming across with such weight that the clarinet's more plangent tone is often all but engulfed. The opening of the central slow movement though is an honourable exception with truly beautiful playing from all concerned - the lighter textures allowing Collins to float a magically lyrical line. If I'm being really picky the pizzicato bass line is rather heavy for the delicacy of the soloist's music. Both here and more so in the Schubert I find Gardner to be little more than efficient in his accompaniments. Not that anything is wrong but where he intuitively found a natural ebb and flow in the Mahler this feels much more by rote.
The acoustic of the Grieghallen proves more of a problem in the Schubert 'Rendering' which is the work I simply have yet to comprehend. I returned to the recent discs of Halvorsen recorded by Chandos in Bergen (volume 4 just issued as CHAN10710) to compare acoustically. In fact - not that surprisingly - they are very similar but where the extended overhang of the hall suited the Halvorsen - and indeed the Mahler here - to a tee the cleaner-textured Schubert suffers almost destructively. This is in no way meant to be treated as an arrangement or completion of the fragments left by Schubert of his Tenth Symphony. For that turn to Brian Newbould's conjectural completion - a version I have not heard in any of its recordings. Berio left his own explanation of his approach and it is worth quoting; "Rendering, with its dual authorship, is intended as a restoration of [Schubert's] sketches, it is not a completion nor a reconstruction. This restoration is made along the lines of the modern restoration of frescoes that aims at reviving the old colours without, however, trying to disguise the damage that time has caused, often leaving inevitable empty patches in the composition." Aurally this translates as passages of what might be termed 'real' Schubert which then dissolve into connective music in a wholly different idiom with no attempt at all to disguise the change. The transitions are fascinatingly managed; they are flagged by the appearance of an anachronistic - in Schubertian terms - celesta that chatters away as the music melts into the often static modernistic sections. Another programme note by Berio alludes to the fact that in his favourite musical-magpie style he has incorporated into his passages motifs and fragments of other Schubert works. He also notes that his material should be performed without expression and 'as if soundlessly'. Certainly the performance here achieves that very well but the resultant effect is as if the music suddenly drifts off into a profound day-dream drained of energy and any kind of momentum. It is only with an effort that the original Schubert-based material is able to reassert itself and the music shakes itself out of the reverie. Crudely put Schubert comes to represent action and Berio stasis. My problem is that I can hear that this is exactly what is wanted and exactly what is achieved but I am no nearer to understanding it. For me the stark juxtaposition of styles works to the benefit of neither. Without a doubt there are some gorgeous crystalline textures in the Berio interpolations. Again the basic sound-stage is not a friend of these two disparate musical worlds. For greater contrast I feel the Schubertian sequences would benefit greatly from a dry and more analytical acoustic. Apparently Schubert was taking classes in counterpoint at this time and certainly one can hear all kinds of quite complicated contrapuntal writing but blurred and weakened by the generosity of the hall. Likewise, the climaxes become inflated - big fat brass and lower strings - that seems quite at odds with any kind of Schubertian sound-world even when Berio is on hand. Again Gardner proves to be a very plain - dare one say dull - interpreter of the Schubert. This might seem to be a simplistic observation; but if the Berio passages are marked to be played without expression a greater emphasis on the nascent romanticism of the Schubert would have thrown this contrast into greater relief. As it is it sounds like plain Schubert linked by frosty Berio. Now I know absolutely that Berio is one of the finest composers of the last half century so this lack of comprehension is my failing not his fault. I will stick with this work for the challenge it presents but for the moment I am struggling. My instinct is that there is a more sympathetic version of this work to be heard. Interesting to note that the original performers were Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Chailly has a well-deserved reputation for the eclectic nature of his repertoire; I imagine he might be just the person to find a through-line for this work which seeks to juxtapose such divergent music. A cursory check of the catalogue does indeed reveal a version by those original performers but I was quite surprised to see a further six recordings, the version under discussion being the eighth. Even though the composition is now a good twenty years old that is still a very respectable roster of discs so clearly both record labels and interpreters warm to it more than I have on first acquaintance.
As with the majority of Chandos CDs this is now presented in hybrid SACD form. I have listened to it in standard CD format only so my concerns regarding the acoustic must be read with that caveat. I have to say though that this was the same system and set-up that had me purring over the Halvorsen series. All credit to Chandos for their continuing commitment to interesting and challenging repertoire and a disc worthy of serious study. Future generations will decide whether ‘Rendering’ is a work of passing curiosity or enduring merit.
Nick Barnard
A typical Chandos disc; interesting repertoire ripely recorded by fine performers.