* BERIO: Calmo; Quattro version originali della Ritirata Notturna di Madrid di L. Boccherini; Sinfonia – Virpi Raisanen, mezzo-soprano/ Mirjam Solomon & Annika Fuhrmann, sop./ Jutta Seppinen, Pasi Hyokki, altos/ Simo Makinen, Paavo Hyokki, tenors/ Taavi Oramo, Sampo Haapaniemi, basses/ Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./ Hannu Lintu – Ondine multichannel SACD ODE 1227-5, 53:56 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

I was in college when the full force of Sinfonia, already then five years old, hit me like a ton of bricks. In those days, rife with the often disingenuous high of unbridled modernism in music—and other arts—experimentation seemed the be-all and end-all of anything. Milton Babbitt didn’t care if we listened while audiences didn’t care at all about what the current crop of composers were coming up with. In the midst of all this there were some bright lights actually making sense of the madness—Berio was one of them, while others like Boulez, iconoclastic to the extreme and not caring one whit about the traditions that came before him, was not. This is not to say that the latter didn’t create some enduring work—he did, though appearances in the concert hall might belie that idea. But Berio, more of the traditionalist, or at least someone cognizant of what had gone on before, and somewhat of a romantic, also inherited the practicality of the musical art. His fifteen Sequenzas for various solo instruments stand as perhaps the most important body of work of that type since Hindemith.

But Berio was concerned about presenting the beauties of the past alongside the rigors of the present, and so Sinfonia was born, using what others would call a “collage” technique of no less than six other composers in the form of quotations and transformations into one remarkable and seamless whole. Sinfonia was criticized by those who felt he had turned from the purer faith, but critics generally adored it while audiences were, at least, not turning from it. In recent years there has been a spate of other recordings besides the composer-led premiere with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia (still available), and Berio did revise the work afterward, so that the piece now has five movements instead of the original four, something that does color the work to a degree. Boulez recorded it, not satisfactorily as he really never understood Berio’s idiom, and so has Chailly in recent years. This new one, fresh out of the SACD oven, is truly a tremendous effort by all concerned, not surprising from these forces and this label. I still will always want the nostalgic reminiscence of the Columbia, but this new one sets some pretty high standards.

Calmo is a work from 1973 that was revised in 1988-89, created in memoriam of Berio’s close friend Bruno Maderna (creator of Italy’s first electronic music studio in 1955). The poetry is by writers that Maderna also liked to set, and the soprano, keeping “calm” throughout the piece, sits center stage for most of the work, accompanied by 22 musicians. Virpi Raisanen sings it with confidence and alert authority.

The opening salvo is another collage which takes into consideration the four versions that Boccherini set of the Ritirata notturna di Madrid, easily one of his most famous pieces. Berio decides to essentially give us, note for note, all four at once! And, amazingly, it sounds like a complete composition in a new form, almost a fifth version with a modern twist, though anyone listening to this will marvel at how faithful it is to the originals. This should be played as an overture in more concert settings as it is very enjoyable and tuneful.

The hi-res surround sound is splendid here, as are all the performances. Somewhat of an essential disc I would say.

—Steven Ritter