Berio: Sinfonia; Ritirata; Calmo
Virpi Raisanen, mezzo-soprano (Calmo); Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
Total Time: 53:56
Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was one of the important composers who rose into international attention primarily in the 1950s and 1960s with one of his crowning works being the Sinfonia recorded here. A student of Dallapiccola, Berio would also begin with experiments in serial technique, though they tended to be a little bit more free form in the way that his mentor’s own work would also move later. He was one of the first to incorporate electronics in his work and also experimented with spatial dimensions in placing performers. Perhaps he was best known for his Sequenza series that pushed the limits of the instrumental combinations and with his wife, Cathy Berberian, he would be aligned with a host of works expanding concepts of vocal artistry. Collage technique was also a part of his compositional toolbox.
Italian instrumental music has always hearkened back to the height of its influence in the Renaissance and Baroque, and later 19th Century opera. Berio always had a great interest in older masters and this led him to create one of his most popular works in 1975 on commission from La Scala. The brief Ritirata Notturna di Madrid was intended as an opening concert number. The music follows the passage of a group of soldiers out on patrol in the Madrid city streets. The music is based on the work of Luigi Boccherini and is an example of Berio’s collage technique where several versions of a piece are superimposed on themselves. The piece is quite quaint and a rather unusual little work that may be the greatest redirect of an opening disc of the composer’s music as things turn to the more avant-garde in the following Calmo.
Bruno Maderna, another contemporary composer/conductor, shared a great deal with Berio in terms of musical aesthetic and an appreciation for earlier music. When Maderna died unexpectedly in 1973, Berio would turn to composition to express his personal loss. The piece was then readapted into a more extensive work the composer revised and incorporated in 1988-1989 where it appears at the end. This is the version used in the present performance. The singer holds her own against the interesting chamber combinations using text sources often favored by Maderna. The vocal line is quite fluid set against an often languid background that is not without moments of dissonant intensity. The texts flow well from one to the next with the intriguing instrumental colors helping to add emotional support to the center stage vocal writing. Virpi Raisanen’s performance is compelling.
Growing up in the 1970s, tracking down the original recording of the Sinfonia (1968-69) with the New York Philharmonic and Swingle Singers was on any young new music lover’s list. Berio was commissioned by Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic to create this work which initially had only four movements, but was then revised with an additional final movement. This is a seminal work of the 20th Century exhibiting collage technique as Berio borrowed music from Mahler’s Second Symphony. The 8-member Swingle Singers were then also electronically amplified, though in a way that makes them a section of the orchestra rather than standing out in front. This is actually a rather interesting concept predating some of the way mixing tends to happen in studios of contemporary film music, though which one can hear in say the scores of Jerry Goldsmith. Of course, other music is tossed in as well with borrowings from Bach, Boulez, Berg, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and many others). Texts are a mix of fragments by Claude Levi-Strauss, the sounds inherent in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name, and Samuel Becket’s “The Unnameable”. Speech itself is often reduced to phonemes and solfege syllables with quotes upon quotes in the text often paralleling musical quotes. At its core, the third movement feels like a traversal of music’s past, present and future. The quotes here are quite recognizable now and it is this collage idea that thus causes the work to need to be heard again so that the deeper connections are able to be made. The performance here is nothing short of revelatory!
To say that Ondine’s release is stunning would be an understatement. The sound is simply superb bringing to light whole sections of this music that often get hidden in overambient recordings. Balance is spot on throughout and Lintu finds the right intensity to interpret these pieces. There are moments in the Sinfonia that are simply sublime. The accents and detail throughout the performance make this an often chilling and exciting piece that should raise the hairs on end. Vocal performances are equally stunning and well-imaged as they should be in this release.
The program on this release really helps provide a good window into the music of Berio for those unfamiliar with his music. The Sinfonia will certainly be the primary reason to pick this up, but there is so much else to recommend it! Some may find in it a rather “trippy” experience which certainly makes it a work of its time. But, it is this sense of valuation of all music old and new and how it is perceived by the listener which makes the music itself compelling and this release should thus invite more exploration of this significant composer of the 20th Century!