BBC Symphony Orchestra/Josep Pons – Berio’s Sinfonia & Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces

Verdi, arranged Berio
Eight Romances
Quattro pezzi sacri

Atalla Ayan (tenor) [Romances]

Synergy Vocals [Sinfonia]

BBC Symphony Chorus with Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano) [Quattro pezzi sacri]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Josep Pons

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 7 December, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The elements of this concert are not as disparate as might immediately appear. Although not featured here, opera played an important part in both composers’ careers (indeed, it constituted almost the entirely of Verdi’s) and correspondingly an aptitude for drama and vocal lyricism filtered into their other works. There are direct links here since the Romances are Luciano Berio’s arrangements of various songs by Verdi originally accompanied by piano, and linked together almost as effectively as a song-cycle as, say, Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Das Lied von der Erde (which, anyway, Mahler termed a symphony). Although the musical idiom generally remains faithful to the Verdian prototype, the orchestral bookends around each song do comprise a more probing style and some of the scoring is more impressionistic, even pointilliste, than Verdi would ever have compassed. Lastly, by ending the concert with Four Sacred Pieces, and therefore the Te Deum, the programme’s course did not simply lapse into cosy religiosity, but was brought full-circle with the questioning, unsettling radicalism of Berio’s Sinfonia, with the uncertain conclusion of the ‘Te Deum’ down in the lower strings; one is reminded of the end of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and that for all man’s idealism – whether religious, philosophical or ethical, directed either to good or bad – other, more basic, natural forces ultimately prevail.

In Sinfonia (1968) Berio rails against, among other things, the passage of time and the destruction it wreaks, though the possibility of memory and even of some sort of transcendence over time is held out as a means of salvation. In this the members of the Synergy Vocals were at one with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in suggesting this message through Berio’s collage of literary and musical quotations. With the group of eight singer/speakers sat around the conductor it was perhaps easy to see them more as a concertino in a concerto grosso, set against the instruments, but as a whole they were properly integrated within the instrumental texture to create an authentically symphonic argument, as intended.

Particularly in the torrent of quotations and allusions in the third movement, Josep Pons welded together a convincing and seamless flow. The performance did, though, lack a sense of menace and claustrophobic frenzy that Berio surely meant by the neurotic effect of piecing together the various quotations (at the base of which is a deconstruction of the scherzo of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony) and by his ironic use of the waltz form (for instance with a reference to Der Rosenkavalier and Ravel’s La valse ) to compound the sense of a maddening, implacable sweep or dance into oblivion. Simply by getting louder and fiercer at climactic moments did not in itself produce the required effect.

Generally, though, the orchestra’s performance combined urgency and euphony, making the case for Sinfonia, like Beethoven’s symphonies, as a classic with enduring import. At times the vocalists’ style suggested that of the Swingle Singers, for whom the work was originally created, adding another stylistic ingredient into the diverse mix.

Atalla Ayan’s singing in the Verdi/Berio Romances was a little disappointing. The songs cover loneliness, exile, the pains of love, the expectation – even the longing – for death, and the joy of wine, but Ayan did little to modulate his tone and expression accordingly. True, he had a commanding sense of line and a mellifluous voice, but he seemed simply to breeze through each setting to get through as efficiently and cleanly as possible, without much thought for emotional nuance, treating each piece as a quasi-operatic aria for vocal display. The conductor and orchestra caught the mood better. Situations (such as exile) and images (a sunset) went for little from the singer but there was appropriate swagger and a sense of earthy fun in ‘Brindisi’ (Drinking Song) and throughout Ayan’s command of Italian was fine.

In Four Sacred Pieces the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra were far better attuned to each other, and succeeded in making these settings substantial works in their own right. The opening ‘Ave Maria’ was a little unfocussed and stodgy, a warm-up for ‘Stabat Mater’ which was much more precise and incisive, the Chorus sounding and expressing itself as one instrument, a statement sharing in the sorrow and anguish of a mother responding to the death of her crucified son, The a cappella ‘Laudi’ was rather bland and, as also in the unaccompanied first section of the ‘Te Deum’, tuning was not always secure. But with the orchestral support in the remainder of this finale an impressive note of majesty and awe was struck. The crystal clarity of Sarah-Jane Brandon’s soprano cut in arrestingly for the few solo lines: “in thee, Lord, I have trusted”. The beauty of her tone was all the more appropriate in conveying a sense of vulnerability that leads naturally to the quiet, unresolved ending.

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