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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Frühe Lieder (orch. Luciano Berio 1986-87) [27:54]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Sinfonia (1968) [33:17]
Matthias Goerne (baritone) (Lieder)
The Synergy Vocals (Sinfonia)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Josep Pons
rec. 26-27 September 2015, Maida Vale BBC Studios (Lieder); 7 December 2012, Barbican Centre, London, UK (Sinfonia)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902180 [61:29]

The two sides of Luciano Berio are well represented on this disc: orchestrator/arranger of other composers’ music, and creator of his own works. I have to say that while I greatly admire the former, I have always had difficulty with the composer’s original compositions. My favourite Berio pieces include his Folk Song arrangements, “completion” of Schubert’s Tenth Symphony, titled Rendering, and the orchestral versions of the early Mahler songs on this programme. Of all his own compositions, Sinfonia is undoubtedly the best known and most often heard. This is due in some degree to Berio’s use of the scherzo movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony, which forms the basis of Sinfonia’s third and longest movement.

While I have never completely come to terms with Sinfonia, I have grown to appreciate what the composer was attempting in this rather cluttered score. As Jérémie Bigorie points out in his enlightening notes in the accompanying booklet, the title Sinfonia is not meant to be regarded as a “symphony,” but to be “taken in its etymological sense: voices (eight of them) and instruments (an orchestra with expanded keyboard and percussion sections) ‘sounding together’.” Bigorie sums up the reaction to the work as “a hodgepodge of gratuitous quotations for some, an in contestable masterpiece for others.” I was first exposed to the work in its four-movement original version composed for Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic back in the late sixties or early seventies. On CD my reference is the Decca account by Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This new recording, though, has provided me with a greater appreciation of the score—particularly the way the vocalists are recorded. There is little to choose between the two accounts as far as the orchestras are concerned, but the clarity of the various quotations from such writers as Claude Lévi-Strauss and James Joyce among others, makes the piece far easier to comprehend. At the same time, the orchestra is not relegated to the background and does not play second fiddle to the spoken or sung texts. The dry acoustics of the Barbican Centre may well have contributed to this impression, but there is more warmth than one usually expects from recordings in that venue. Josep Pons clearly relishes the score and brings it across as well as one could hope, particularly the Martin Luther King tribute in the second movement and the third movement with its references not only to Mahler, but also to Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, and other composers.

Nevertheless, what make this disc special are the Berio orchestrations of early Mahler songs. Berio scored ten of Mahler’s songs into two sets of five for male voice and orchestra and six for baritone voice and orchestra, respectively, where he repeated the last song from the first set, Erinnerung, as the ultimate song in the second set. Thus, there are eleven altogether, if you include the repeat of Erinnerung. Seven of these songs originated in Des Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler hadn’t orchestrated, though there was the orchestra-only version of Ablösung im Sommer the composer used as the basis of the scherzando third movement of his Symphony No. 3. Berio’s orchestrations are totally idiomatic, because he was respectful of Mahler’s own orchestral versions of his other songs. They sound like pure Mahler, not the Berio of his own compositions. David and Colin Matthews also scored seven of Mahler’s early songs for orchestra in 1964, including some from Des Knaben Wunderhorn that are in the Berio collection. There is an RCA recording of four of the early songs in their edition sung by soprano Ruth Ziesak with the Royal Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti on a disc containing the Symphony No. 4. As with other Mahler lieder they suit the high voice as well as the low.

Matthias Goerne is a superb exponent of these songs with his rich, dark baritone. He captures the romantic longing and the bitterness of death equally well, while one might prefer a lighter voice in the songs touched with earthy humour. Thomas Hampson is just such a performer. He recorded both sets of these songs with Berio conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, along with other early Mahler lieder for Teldec, back in the early 1990s when his voice was at its freshest. Actually, there is little to choose between the two baritones. They complement each other well. Goerne is especially eloquent in Erinnerung, which, incidentally, Hampson includes twice on his disc, as the last number of each set. Goerne also excels in Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald and Phantasie where he sings with great feeling and varies the lyrical and more darkly romantic passages well. Hampson, on the other hand, is terrific in such songs as Ablösung im Sommer, Hans und Grete (where he imitates a yodel that some others also do, but Goerne does not), and Frühlingsmorgen. Goerne is recorded up-close and can be overpowering at times, whereas Hampson is slightly more distant and better integrated with the orchestra. One really needs both recordings to fully appreciate these songs, which should be every bit as popular as the ones Mahler orchestrated himself.

As a programme demonstrating the talents of Berio as composer and as orchestrator I cannot think of a better place to start than here. Pons and the BBC Symphony do him proud in the Sinfonia, and enlisting Goerne in the songs was inspired.

Leslie Wright

Track listing of Frühe Lieder
From “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (1-4, 6, 7, 10)
Ablösung im Sommer [1:37]
Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz [3:49]
Nicht wiedersehen! [4:32]
Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen [1:49]
Erinnerung (R. Leander) [2:47]
Hans und Grete [2:03]
Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald [4:26]
Frühlingsmorgen (R. Leander) [1:59]
Phantasie (from “Don Juan,” Tirso de Molina) [2:24]
Scheiden und Meiden [2:28]
 


 

 




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