A great way to reexamine Berio’s genius.

LUCIANO BERIO: Sinfonia; GUSTAV MAHLER: Ten Early Songs – Matthias Goerne, bari./The Synergy Vocals/BBC Sym. Orch./Josep Pons – Harmonia mundi/PIAS HMC 902180, 61:11, (9/09/16) ****:

The late 1950s and 1960s “new music” movement in Europe or what was the avant-garde of the time took off a little slower in Italy (not particularly known even today as a country that produces a lot of ‘contemporary classical’ music.) There are a lot of reasons for this but certainly to be included on the short list would be Luigi Dallapiccolo, Luigi Nono, composer-conductor Bruno Maderna and the present Luciano Berio; maybe the best and most renowned of the group.

Berio had a unique talent and a style that was not embroiled in the twelve-tone serialism movement nor in the aleotoric “chance” music of the time. In fact, the very helpful and well-written program booklet notes by Jeremie Bigorie summarize nicely that Berio truly believed in “Down with Dogma!”

Of his many works that earned an international performance life, the one that has survived and flourished to this day with several important recordings available is his Sinfonia for vocal ensemble and large orchestra. It is an iconoclastic and stunning work that I had the pleasure to hear live many years ago with the original group who premiered it in 1968; the Swingle Singers.

Its five movements are a reflection of the turbulent times, including the famous second movement, “O King” written in tribute to Martin Luther King and the whole American civil rights movement and just months before King was assassinated. There is also a clear and well-known nightmarish third movement that uses extracts from the Mahler second symphony as well as snippets of works by Schoenberg, Berlioz, Berg, Brahms and others. Berio is quoted to indicate these are “signposts” of the classical musical landscape intended neither as tribute nor as parody. In some performances one of the vocalists is allowed to comment extemporaneously “off the chart.”  In one of the performances I saw – in the group’s second iteration as Swingle II – Ward Swingle did just this, commenting on the evening which also held a large work by John Cage, with Cage in attendance. To this day, Sinfonia remains arguably Berio’s best-known work and also a “wild ride,” but one that never feels too alien. It has that unique quality of being able to entertain even the most staid of concert hall audiences.

This disc also features a stunning rendition of Berio’s own orchestration of Gustav Mahler’s Frühe Lieder (Early Songs.) The collection of ten songs is taken from the Das Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”.) Berio is said to have used Mahler’s own original score for voice and piano as a model for his new orchestration, in which Mahler included some very unusual uses of the keyboard including percussion effects. Berio’s rendition is not actually particularly jarring in any way and – in this recording – we get to experience the great Matthias Goerne; one of our best Mahler interpreters today.

These two works make for a fascinating pairing and a very rewarding album. The recording and sound quality here are as wonderful as are the performances. I have had the pleasure to hear Matthias Goerne live doing Mahler and he is an amazing talent a commanding presence. I was not all that familiar with the work of conductor Josep Pons but his work is outstanding and he clearly understands the music of Luciano Berio quite well. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs