Ekphrasis (Continuo II)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in April 2004 in the Konserthuset, Gothenburg
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: November 2005
CD No: DG 477 5380
Duration: 51 minutes
Berio’s Sinfonia can be regarded as a kind of ‘signature piece’ of the 1960s. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th-anniversary, the composer conducted the first performance in 1968. He then revised the work – adding a fifth movement – the première of which was conducted by the Philharmonic’s then Music Director, Leonard Bernstein, to whom Sinfonia is dedicated. Sadly, Bernstein did not record it.
Sinfonia has been modestly represented on disc, Pierre Boulez’s 1984 Erato recording being the most consistently recommended. Berio himself recorded the original (four-movement) version in New York, a 1969 recording for CBS that has never been transferred to CD, yet in many ways it is the most convincing realisation of the spirit of Sinfonia and in several respects it is ideally balanced – not least with regard to the placing of the eight amplified solo voices.
To some extent, Sinfonia could be described as an example of’approachable’ avant-garde music. Age has perhaps softened what must have been regarded as provocative moments when it was first performed, but some of Berio’s aural imaginings are still effective and, indeed, striking.
Peter Eötvös – a distinguished composer himself – is well-versed in the realisation of 20th-century and contemporary scores, so it is rather surprising to find him adopting what could be termed a rather ‘soft grained’ approach to certain parts of Sinfonia. To be sure, there are passages – such as those vocal ones which open three of the movements – where mystery and expectancy are the order of the day, but I’m not at all sure that these moments should sound quite as seductive as they do in this Gothenburg performance.
The first movement has characteristic aggressive outbursts, but I found them tame by direct comparison with the composer’s own reading, and the distinctive sonorities of the electric organ and electric harpsichord do not ‘register’ as strongly as they do under Berio. The largely elegiac second movement is well-realised, however. This movement incorporates a re-working of an earlier work written in memory of Martin Luther King, and is headed with the title of that piece – “O King”. The sounds – vowels and syllables – of King’s name form the text, initially indecipherable but becoming clear towards the close of the movement. The apparently gentle surface conceals anger: this ambivalence iseffectively conveyed by Eötvös and his forces.
The heart of Sinfonia lies in its third movement, which ‘borrows’ – ‘steals’ might be more apt – the entire equivalent movement fromMahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. It was a performance by Bernstein of Mahler’s work that was the inspiration behind it.Overlaid on the Mahler – which is sometimes audible and sometimes submerged (“a river going through a constantly changing landscape” is the composer’s own description) – are quotations from a whole range of music – Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Stravinsky – to name but a few.
Allied to this musical kaleidoscope is a similarly eclectic gatheringof verbal texts with an on-going ‘commentary’ spoken by the baritone. Beckett, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Paris-riot street-graffiti are amongst them. The result is remarkable and must have sounded particularly audacious back in 1968. But the voices are balanced too closely on this recording – and even more so on Erato. “Not quite hearing” is how Berio intended his listeners to perceive the voices; he insisted that they are an integral part of the orchestral fabric, not to be prominent and merely accompanied, and it is only on the composer’s own recording where this effect is fully realised, with the added ‘tang’ of the French-inflected speech of the ‘original’ Swingle Singers, for whom the vocal parts were composed, next to whomthe singers from London Voices sounds unsuitably genteel.
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra plays valiantly, though it doesn’t sound as if it is completely at home in this idiom. Once again, more ‘heft’ would have been welcome – in the quote from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, for instance, or especially in the ‘crisis’ chord of Berio’s (and Mahler’s) climax. “Say it again louder”, shouts the first alto. Quite so.
As with the gentler mien of the second movement, the fourth fares well under Eötvös, with voices and instruments in accord. This is where Sinfonia originally concluded – somewhat ominously andambiguously. But Berio evidently felt the need for a final ‘summing up’ and added a fifth movement. Having grown up with the four-movement version, I have never felt entirely sure that the extra movement was strictly necessary, but in it, Berio recalls material heard earlier and produces textures denser and thornier than anywhere else in the piece. The various strands are impressively clear in this performance which is, as I have indicated, overall, rather variable in quality.
The rendering of Ekphrasis, however, seems to me to be consistently convincing. I have not heard Berio’s own recording (Col Legno), but Eötvös and the Gothenburg players sound more at ease with this, Berio’s last purely orchestral work, than they do in Sinfonia. Subtitled ‘Continuo II’, Berio describes the piece as “one continuous, ever-changing sound landscape” which forms a “commentary on an adagio” – the latter referring to his work Continuo (hence ‘Continuo II’). The composer had architectural images in mind, though there is no need for extra-musical references in order to appreciate this 18-minute single movement design. As in Sinfonia, there are alternating passages of reflection (though of an oddly restless kind) and more forceful outbursts. These qualities are admirably realised.