A landmark new recording from Harmonia Mundi of Luciano Berio’s responses to Gustav Mahler, with Matthias Goerne, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Joseph Pons, featuring Berio’s orchestrations of ten of Mahler’s Early Songs with the Sinfonia, in which references to Mahler’s Symphony no 2 provide, as Berio said “a generator of harmonic functions and the musical references they imply”.
Berio describes the Sinfonia as an “internal monologue” which makes a “harmonic journey”. It flows, like a river, sometimes in full flow, sometimes underground. Mahler 2 is called the “Resurrection” because it’s based on the idea that death isn’t an end but a stage on a journey to eternal life. In Sinfonia, there are quotes from at least 15 other composers, but specially significant are references to Don, the first movement of Boulez’s Pli selon Pli (which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations). Don means gift, so this is like a gift from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that creativity never ends, but is reborn anew. Stagnation is death.
Berio’s river in sound flows swiftly, bringing in its wake the streams and springs which have enriched it, adapting them and changing them, surging ever forwards towards the freedom of the ocean. It’s filled with subtle references to many things: to Cythera, one of the cradles of Greek civilization and the home of the goddess of regeneration. Sinfonia is truly a “symphony that contains the world” but it is by no means just collage. Like a river it also symbolizes constant fertilization and renewal.
Every performance is unique. This performance naturally names Pons as conductor, and Synergy Vocals by name, but is remarkably fresh and clean-sounding. Nothing comes close to Boulez’s recording, though Chailly and Eötvös are good challengers, but Pons sparkles. Over the years Synergy Vocals have done Sinfonia many times with different personnel, but present it with such a sense of wonder that it feels like new discovery. Which is what a good Sinfonia should be, bringing new detail to the surface, vibrantly dancing with energy like the fishes listening to the saint, but nonetheless going on in their individual ways. The BBCSO, for a band happy in the mainstream, sound like they’re having a whale of a time being playful and contrary, for fun was very much part of the Berio mystique.
“Down with Dogma!” another thread in Sinfonia is apt, since this recording places Sinfonia together with Berio’s orchestrations of Mahler’s songs for voice and piano. Mahler himself worked from song to symphony, so, as Berio explained, “One of my aims was to use the orchestration as a respectful and loving instrument of investigation and transformation”. Berio’s arrangements were premiered at the Mahler Musikwochen in Toblach where serious Mahler minds meet. The ten songs on this recording come from sets of frühe Lieder Mahler wrote between 1880 and 1889, which Berio adapted in 1986/7. Thomas Hampson made the first recording in January 1992, with Berio himself conducting the Philharmonia, London. Much as I love that recording, this new recording is even better. Although Goerne has not recorded much Mahler, Mahler has been central to his career. In 2000, he did a programme where the Early Songs and Des Knaben Wunderhorn were presented by theme, bringing out deeper ideas. At other times, I’ve spotted him unobtrusively in concerts, listening with rapt attention. Hampson’s voice is elegant, even stately, but Goerne’s more individualistic, which suits the earthy irony in Wunderhorn.
All these texts come from Brentano and von Arnim’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Though the songs themselves were written fairly early in Mahler’s career, without Wunderhorn, Mahler would not have developed as he did. The texts may be folksy but the sentiments are sophisticated. They’re not quaint for quaintness’s sake, but, like fairy tales, operate like miniature morality fables in a pre-industrial oral tradition. Thus the sense of non-judgemental wonder Goerne brings to songs like Ablösung im Sommer, Goerne sings the words “Kuckuck ist tod!” with genuine alarm. Although the nightingale will take over, the death of a humble cuckoo is something to be sad about. Berio’s version of Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz is magnificent. Goerne sings the first words alone, for the protagonist is alone, awaiting execution. then we hear the Alphorn, calling across a vast chasm. This dialogue matters, for this song is about freedom. Die Gedanken sind Frei. Please read my analysis of the song here. The depth of Goerne’s voice suggests strength, not fear, yet also wistfulness. The soldier doesn’t want to die but at least he’ll be free. Listen, too, to the tenderness Goerne brings to Nicht Wiedersehen. The poem might seem trite, but when Goerne sings “Meine Herzeallerliebste Schatz”, his voice soars, emboldened by the sincerity of genuine grief.
Berio’s orchestration brings out the dance in Hans und Grete, Big sweeping arcs evoke “Ringel, ringel Reih’n”., the force of Nature that pulls together the two timid lovers. Peasants they may be but their love is such that it deserves the full force of a big orchestra. Ich ging mit Lust is also greatly enhanced, connecting to the way the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesell’n connect to Mahler’s Symphony no 1. Dark-hued baritones don’t do delicate easily, but Goerne’s touch emphasizes the spring-like freshness in the song, and the warmth of summer to come. This gentleness flows naturally into
Frühlingsmorgen.the words “Steh’ auf” charming yet assertive. In Phantasie, Goerne alternates the top of his timbre with darker depths: the fisher girl cast nets into the sea, but her heart is cold. On this recording the set ends with Scheiden und Meiden. The orchestration is richly generous. “Ade “! Ade!” Goerne sings, expansively. “Ja, scheiden und meiden tut weh”, but that’s the way of the world. Even babies grow up and change. Moving on isn’t a bad thing. An utterly brilliant entree to the world of the Sinfonia.
Goerne is singing very well at the moment : Grab tickets to his Mahler Das Lied von der Erde with Joseph Pons at the Royal Festival Hall on 16th October. They’ve been touring with this a while, so it should be good.
Original Source: Berio Sinfonia and Mahler Early Songs – Goerne.