A dazzling Berio sampler
Bruce Hodges | New York, NY | 01/05/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This recording highlights some of Berio's best pieces, and shows off the superb playing of this orchestra under Chailly, who obviously loves these scores. The original "Sinfonia" recording from the 1960's was marvelous, but this one has the fifth movement, added later, and the entire CD is in spectacular sound. (I have not heard the Boulez version.) The beautifully played interpretation could stand on its own merits, but the fact is that Decca has given this masterwork the sonic splendor it deserves. The vocalists are Britain's outstanding Electric Phoenix, and they are at their finest in the taxing, complex middle movement that uses the "Scherzo" from Mahler's Second Symphony as its spine. Berio's transformation requires the singers to sing, yell, laugh, whisper and more, and the disciplined, yet uninhibited approach here is breathtaking. Jard van Nes uses her warm timbre beautifully in the Folk Songs; check out her flowing line in "Black is the color of my true love's hair." Berio's spare orchestrations, coupled with freshly altered chords and rhythms, make intriguing listening. With all this, the rousing "Formazione" almost seems like a bonus. This disc may be hard to find, but is highly recommended, both as an outstanding document of an invigorating (and major) 20th-century work, and of the chemistry between Chailly and the orchestra. One of their best recordings together."
Berio fans would do well to hear "Formazioni" here, but the
Christopher Culver | 05/24/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This 1990 Decca disc where Ricardo Chailly conducts the Royal Concertgeouw in three works by Luciano Berio has been overlooked even by dedicated fans of the composer. It does have some value for its recording of "Formazioni", one of the few out there of such a great piece, but the remaining two pieces are disappointingly performed.
"Sinfonia" for 8 voices and orchestra (1968-69) is vast in its proportions and in the musical traditions it incorporates. The eight voices are meant to be jazz singers, and Berio originally wrote the piece for the Swingle Singers. The first two movements are quiet and mysterious. In the first, the singers gently intone selections from Levi-Strauss' retellings of Brazilian myths, made so vague that only the phonetic properties matter. In the second movement "O King", an orchestration of an earlier independent work, the singers slowly build up to the name "Martin Luther King", who had been murdered the year in the tumultuous year when Berio wrote the bulk of the piece.
The third movement of "Sinfonia", the extroverted "In ruhig fliessender Bewegung", is the most famous. The skeleton of the work is the second movement from Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony, a little cut-up and reordered. Over this, Berio has a tenor reciting text taken mainly from Samuel Beckett's "The Unnameable" and Berio's own journalistic writings, and the orchestra responds with quotations from fifteen composers. For example, when the narrator uses the term "the lowing cattle, the rush of the stream", we hear part of Beethoven's "Pastorale" symphony, while a singer's cry "This is nothing but an academic exercise" is ironically accompanied by music by Hindemith. Every listener has his own favourite part of this movement, mine is when the narrator says "I have a present for you" and the orchestra responds with that big tutti chord that opens Boulez' "Don" (which is to say, "Gift").
The fourth and fifth movements return to a subdued tone. The fourth brings back Levi-Strauss references and is rather brief. But for all my initial passion about the third movement, I find it is the fifth which is the most intriguing and satisfying. Originally "Sinfonia" was written in four movements, but after the first performance, Berio was unhappy that these four movements were not reconciled to each other. In the fifth movement he subsequently wrote, therefore, we hear references in the form of quotation and harmonic development to the original four movements, a savage mix of voices, confused percussion, and threatening trombones a la Per Norgard's fifth symphony. A splendid end to a massive work.
For a long time, *the* recording of the "Sinfonia" to have was that with the Orchestre National de France and the New Swingle Singers conducted by Pierre Boulez (first released on Erato, then reissued at budget price in Warner's "Apex" line). But now I find the 2005 DG recording by Eotvos and the Goteborgs Symfoniker the best, for Eotvos keeps it moving along at a much fresher clip than Boulez, and keeps this 1968 piece from seeming any sort of dated hippie-era happening. Unfortunately, Chailly's is a disappointing recording. Consider the third movement. The narrator is the most important force on the stage, for it is he who seems to conjure orchestral outbursts into being. On this recording, he's mixed so low that he doesn't stand out any better than the other voices.
"Folk Songs" (1967) is a collection of artful arrangements of 11 folk songs for soprano and chamber orchestra, are probably the most frequently performed of Berio's works. They are very safe, containing no scary "modernist" traces, and they give the soprano a chance to show off. I've seen this piece performed live a couple of times, and I hate it. It's so saccharine and frou-frou. The only soprano who made it work is Cathy Berberian, for whom Berio wrote the piece, because of her incredible stage presence. There's a video recording of a performance with her that's floating around, try to track that down.
"Formazioni" (1985-1988) is only 20 minutes long, but I'd suggest Berio fans hunt down this disc just for it. (There is another recording on a recent Collegno release, but the piece was written for Chailly.) Here Berio has rearranged the orchestra to realize a wonderfully spatialized soundworld. Brass is distributed to either side, throwing notes back and forth over the rest of the orchestra. Woodwinds are also distributed at a distance from each other. The result has something of the conversational ambience of Elliott Carter, the weirdness of Stockhausen's "Gruppen" and, in its one-movement form, the coherence of Magnus Lindberg. But the writing is so recognizably Berio, from the rich post-serialist harmonies to the tremolo brass and clarinet. A merely stereo recording can't represent all of it, but the piece does sound great here. I wish I had discovered "Formazioni" years ago."