Berio: Sinfonia; Mahler: 10 Early Songs CD review – a vivid taste of Berio's rich musical world

Goerne/BBC SO/Pons
Harmonia Mundi)

It’s mostly because of its associations with another composer, Mahler, that Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, composed for the New York Philharmonic between 1967 and 69, is now firmly established as his best-known work. Berio’s virtuoso use of the Scherzo of the Resurrection Symphony as the matrix for an allusive journey through music history, in which Mahler’s music becomes the scaffolding on to which he fixed a whole gallery of quotations from other composers, is the spectacularly successful centrepiece of the five-movement work, and the perfect introduction to Berio’s richly allusive musical world.

Full palette of baritonal shades … Matthias Goerne.
Full palette of baritonal shades … Matthias Goerne. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

As a result of its popularity, there’s been no shortage of recordings of the Sinfonia since Berio himself conducted the first, shortly after the premiere. But this latest one, taken from Josep Pons’s concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2012, thoughtfully underlines the Berio-Mahler connection by pairing it with the set of 10 early Mahler songs that Berio orchestrated in the mid-80s. They are taken from the collection that was composed in 1880s and first published in 1892. Seven are settings of poems from the folksy Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and they mostly inhabit the same expressive world of disappointed love and fatalistic yearning as the better known Wunderhorn settings of the same period, and the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, for which Mahler wrote his own texts.

Berio’s skilful arrangements invoke a similar soundworld as Mahler’s own orchestrations of his songs: it’s colourful, slightly brittle, and vividly pointed up by Pons. Matthias Goerne gives the vocal lines the slightly larger-than-life quality they need, exaggerating their expressive extremes and running through his full palette of baritonal shades. His voice is placed well forward in the sound picture, and the voices of Synergy Vocals are very much to the fore in the Sinfonia, rather than buried in the orchestral detail, so that the patchwork of texts that runs through all the movements – by Lévi-Strauss, Beckett and Berio himself, mainly – comes across more clearly than usual on disc.

Watch video of Matthias Goerne sing Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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