Deutsche Grammophon might have slowed down or even killed their "20/21" line of new music recordings, but thank goodness we got this disc first. Here we have Luciano Berio's masterpiece of the 1960s, alongside a late and little-known orchestral work, performed by the Goteborgs Symfoniker and the London Voices conducted by the great Peter Eotvos.
"Sinfonia" for eight voices and orchestra (1968-69) is one of Luciano Berio's greatest works, 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 before.
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 Unnamable" 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). However, I must say I find Eotvos' the best available. In the third movement, Eotvos keeps it going at a very nice clip, creating a dizzying parade of images. Boulez, on the other hand, kept things quite slow; if one has already heard the Eotvos recording, terms like "molasses" come to mind. Also, the recording of Eotvos' go, as well as the fresh approach of the London Voices, keep this from sounding like a dated '60s happening. Still, Boulez's recording is solid in the other four movements, and the Berio fan should seek that out as well.
The liner notes for "Sinfonia" consist of a short sketch by Paul Griffiths, which covers all the basics. However, those enraptured by the piece would do well to seek out David Osmond-Smith's PLAYING ON WORDS: A Guide to Luciano Berio's 'Sinfonia' (University of Chicago, 1987) ISBN 0947854002.
The following "Ekphrasis (Continuo II)" for orchestra (1996) shows a different Berio, a composer who has worked through postmodernism and (in the 1970s) reinvigorated modernism to the fullness of his compositional powers. "Ekphrasis" is a vast orchestral landscape, where one can enjoy the fine view of hills or concentrate on myriad small developments subtly taking place in the instrumental textures. This isn't the only recording of "Ekphrasis", as it was put out by Col Legno as well, but it sure is the easiest to find.
Bottom line: get the Boulez recording and this, and enjoy a thrilling tour de force of the 20th-century music.