Luciano Berio's Groundbreaking Work Revisited

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra provides a magnificent new recording of 'Sinfonia' and other works by the late Italian composer.

Noam Ben-Zeev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Luciano Berio.
Luciano Berio.Credit: Getty Images
Noam Ben-Zeev

The history of recording is filled with milestone “definitive” and “ultimate” recordings put forth as criteria that cannot be surpassed and to which everything is compared. “La Traviata” sung by Maria Callas in Lisbon in 1958 (and perhaps the recording from La Scala in 1955). Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony conducted by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia playing Shubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for four hands, and of course Glenn Gould in the first recording of the Goldberg Variations.

This approach is not without problems, not to say absurdities: It maintains that there is an index for the quality of a musical rendition, and with this index one can achieve the “best” and moreover, freeze it in time, even for decades. As though music is not a living and dynamic art, renewing itself each time it is performed, and just as dependent on the listeners as on the performers.

And still there is something to it. When you hear Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” – the groundbreaking work that was like a watershed between the Darmstadt School’s avant-garde and the new approaches that cast doubt on it – it’s hard not to call it a masterpiece, the soundboard against which everything echoes and compared to which everything is judged. This was a 1968 recording conducted by Berio with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Swingle Singers, a debut recording that was made immediately after the debut performance that same year. “Sinfonia” was a work that had not even been completed (Berio composed the last movement only later) and was recorded wildly, roughly, enthusiastically.

On the new disc, issued by Ondine, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hannu Lintu do not suffer from an inferiority complex when faced with that masterpiece, or the one that followed it, conducted by Pierre Boulez in the early 1990s. Nor when faced with the sea of other recordings of this work. They jump into it with all its rhythm, joie de vivre, complexity, delicacy and humor, and offer a rendition that demonstrates that the concept of the ultimate recording is apparently passe.

“Sinfonia” is like every work, and perhaps more than any of them, because it relates to the history of music itself. The third movement of “Sinfonia” takes the scherzo movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony, and uses it as a chariot on which Berio – and with him the audience – travels the length and breadth of musical history: “The scherzo takes on the harmonic functions and the musical references that stem from them ... they appear and disappear, go their own way and return to Mahler, entwined in each other, change shape, flow to Mahler and hide within him,” said Berio in answer to a question about the work in the book “Conversations about Music” (in Italian, 1984). He enumerates the large number of citations and allusions from innumerable composers that appear in the movement, “serving as milestones that mark which harmonic district we are crossing, like a bookmark, like small colored flags placed in key spots on a topographical map, prior to a mission that is full of surprises.”

Cover of the Luciano Berio's new album.

Berio calls his work “a sort of voyage to Cythera. For me, Mahler is a ship plying the ocean, a ship filled with fine things, magnificent people and gifts.” It includes not only musical citations but also singing, cries in various voices, recitations, citations from contemporary literature, presentation of the conductor before the audience, and comments on the work itself by the eight singers, whose voices are amplified by microphones.

In that way, Mahler’s Second Symphony flows like a river that carries Berio’s laden ship. This is a river that alternately appears and disappears, the sound of its flow becoming stronger and occasionally deafening, which shows how much the musical landscape is planted in its past roots. Martin Luther King is also a hero of “Sinfonia.” The second movement is called “O King” and uses the syllables of his name in his memory; it was written not long after his assassination, which horrified proponents of human rights and anti-fascist fighters such as Berio. Static, slow, dismembered music, dotted with sharp emphases and dying out tragically, it is also performed here with great sensitivity.

In addition to “Sinfonia,” which reminds the musical world of Luciano Berio (1925-2003), other lesser known works are also on this disc. One of them is his orchestral adaptation of “Night Music on the Streets of Madrid” by the 18th century composer Luigi Boccherini. The work, which its composer finally rejected, was so popular in its day that Boccherini was asked to write an increasing number of versions and adaptations. Berio took all these versions and placed them simultaneously, for a truly unfettered musical celebration.

Also on the disc: “Calmo,” for mezzo soprano and 22 instruments, in memory of the composer Bruno Maderna, Berio’s colleague and friend. This work also demonstrates how Berio developed new ideas about contemporary music and the directions in which he wanted to take it: music that is not necessarily melodic or harmonic in the classic tonal sense, but based on identifiable signs: “Do you know what my ideal is in theater?” he asked his interviewer in the book. “To take two simple behaviors, like ‘walking in the rain’ and ‘typing on a typewriter,’ and to stage them in such a way that they give rise to a third behavior, which we can’t predict, because it’s new and therefore is not simply a combination of banal behaviors. [But] in order for that to happen the behaviors have to be identifiable.” In the avant-garde 1960s, an approach that demanded “identifiable behaviors” was like an earthquake.