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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Quattro version originali della Ritirata Notturna di madrid di L. Boccherini (1975) [6:26]
Calmo for mezzo and 22 instruments (1974/1989) [14:05]
Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra (1968-69) [33:06]
Virpi Räisänen (mezzo)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. January 2014, Helsinki Music Centre.
ONDINE ODE1227-5 SACD [53:56]

This impressive programme of works by Luciano Berio has as its overture the gently transformed Ritirata Notturna di madrid by Boccherini. This superimposes the original versions by Boccherini and doesn’t add modern strangeness to this antique idiom as he did in Rendering. The effect of a marching band looming out of the darkness and receding in sonorous harmony is nicely done.
 
Calmo was written in memory of Berio’s friend Bruno Maderna, who died unexpectedly in 1973. Texts for this are given in the booklet in Italian and English. This is a ‘calm’ work in many respects, with references to nature and the moon reflected for a large part in a kind of restless nocturnal tranquillity. This doesn’t all pass without drama however, though the outbursts of passion are reined in through the general transparency of the instrumentation. Virpi Räisänen’s voice is excellent for this piece, strong enough to carry the weight of the words and leading or responding to the instrumental timbres in a work with a poetry and sense of despondent magic all of its own.
 
Sinfonia is one of those landmark contemporary works which has received more attention over the years, and competition on other recordings has to be acknowledged. Looking at the score is a more daunting prospect than listening to a performance however. Berio’s sense of theatre, instrumental colour and potent harmony are ever-present. The vocal parts, originally designed for the talents of The Swingle Singers, are also an essential element and superbly performed here. The voices have to mix with the instruments and should not be heard as soloists. This balance is respected in this excellent recording, but following the text in the booklet is not straightforward. Better just to know that certain words and meanings are being conveyed. If you are fearful of this piece just have a listen to the second movement, Berio’s tribute to Martin Luther King O King, and find yourself transported into strange and wonderful realms. This is followed in the central movement with wit and humour, including references to Mahler, Stravinsky, Ravel and heaven knows what else, the singers going on and on with their understated self-referential quasi-nonsense.
 
That third movement is in many ways the main feature. However, the vast landscapes of the intermezzo-like third movement and pointillist features and layers of texture in the fourth are every bit as powerful. My own reference for the Sinfonia has long been that with Ricardo Chailly conducting Electric Phoenix and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca. This is also a keenly observed performance, with a recording which is almost too detailed in its various multi-microphoned layers.

The Ondine recording is also something of an exercise in hyper-reality, but the 5.0 surround experience is truly remarkable, and at times genuinely overwhelming. The performance is tremendously idiomatic and convincing. This production is an all-round winner from beginning to end.
 
Dominy Clements