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 Recording of the Week  Synergy Vocals and Matthias Goerne perform music by Luciano Berio and Gustav Mahler

When composer Pierre Boulez was once asked by an American radio station to list his top ten works of the twentieth century, one of his choices was the Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. Written in 1968 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, it is scored not only for large orchestra but also eight solo voices. Originally written with The Swingle Singers in mind, the honours are taken here by The Synergy Vocals, and I must say it's quite a tour de force!

Luciano Berio
Luciano Berio

The vocal parts require not only singing but also speaking, whispering, chattering, and shouting. However, this description doesn't adequately cover the sheer range of techniques required (if you have ever listened to Berio's Sequenza for voice then you will be aware of the considerable demands he places upon his singers!), and the performance here is nothing short of staggering at every turn.

Berio asks for the recitation of various texts, whether it be excerpts from Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1964 mythological study, Le cru et le cruit, in the first movement, or a passage from Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable in the third. The five-minute second movement is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, and its text consists simply of the words “O King, O Martin Luther King” sung repeatedly. Surrounded as it is by the raucous hubbub of its neighbouring movements, it's an extremely beautiful, hushed elegy, especially when performed as hauntingly as it is here.

For the central third movement, Berio takes as his framework one of Gustav Mahler's Knaben Wunderhorn Lieder, 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt' (also used by Mahler as the third-movement Scherzo in his Resurrection Symphony, composed around the same time as the song). Around this Mahlerian skeleton, Berio interweaves not only his own music but also snippets of other pieces by composers such as Bach, Berlioz, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez and many others. Sometimes these quotations are worked in because they happen to share the same metre as the Mahler (so at various points we hear fragments of Ravel's La Valse and the waltz from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier), but occasionally they are prompted by the text, so when one of the sopranos quotes from Paul Valéry's poem Le Cimetière marin (“La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée!”), we hear a flash of Debussy's La mer!

Again, any attempt to describe this movement can't possibly do full justice to how extraordinary an accomplishment it is; it's much more than simply copying out some Mahler and throwing in a few other bits and pieces, and the overall effect in performance is remarkable, shifting from violent orchestral outbursts to some truly sublime moments. Berio's wit is on display too: towards the end of the movement, just as the Mahlerian music is dying out, one of the tenors intones “There was even, for a second, hope of resurrection, or almost...”.

With my focus on the vocal demands of this piece, I shouldn't forget that it's not exactly easy for the orchestra either, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra navigate the twisting and shifting styles with phenomenal authority, aided by the expert ear of conductor Josep Pons, who allows the myriad quotations to come across deftly, and the balance between voices and orchestra, even during the most ferocious climaxes, is never less than ideal.

I’ve barely space to mention the other work on the disc: given the Mahlerian references in the Sinfonia it’s fitting that it should be coupled with Berio’s orchestrations of ten early Mahler Lieder. Unlike the Sinfonia, Berio’s role here is not to reimagine but simply to orchestrate, and aside from perhaps a dash more percussion in places than I might have expected, they seem to me to retain the spirit of Mahler’s music.

For these songs the BBC Symphony Orchestra are joined by one of my favourite baritones, Matthias Goerne. I say baritone, but he seems to be several singers rolled into one: the richest bass notes at the bottom of his range blend effortlessly into a beautifully lyrical high register. It’s an outstanding performance from Goerne, and makes a welcome companion to a most impressive account of the Sinfonia.

Berio: Sinfonia & Berio/Mahler: 10 Frühe Lieder

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Synergy Vocals, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Josep Pons

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC