Berio Conducts Berio :: Sinfonia (1968-1969); Epifanie (1965)
(Columbia MS 7268 / RCA LSC-3189)
Sinfonia (1968-1969), for eight amplified voices and orchestra, was part of a wider pattern of response to the musical crisis of the 1960s, during which avant-garde composers began once again to look to music of the past for material and inspiration – a turn towards so-called "meta music", or music about music. The third movement of Sinfonia is one of the most famous and remarkable examples of this approach: a dense fabric of verbal quotations contained within a musical quotation, the Scherzo from Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which is borrowed virtually wholesale and then used as a kind of musical armature around which Berio concocts a dazzling semantic and musical labyrinth, including further quotations (from Mahler, Ravel and Debussy, among others) and chattering texts drawn from Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable. The four outer movements frame this central tour de force with further, though more understated, explorations of the relationship between text and note – most tellingly in the second movement, "O King", a moving homage to Martin Luther King which gradually constructs a quietly intoned vocal setting of his name out of its constituent vowel sounds – a procedure analagous to that used in Circles.
Epifanie is an epiphany of sorts in modern vocal writing. The opening section is the longest, setting out what appear to be purely abstract musical figures, murmurs, sudden clashes of percussion, staccato notes scurrying across the "page" of perception. Then quietly, the voice enters. Proust’s text is opaque – he sees three trees, but what is he looking at? Berio’s setting of the vocal line reflects the circular logic of the text. How fortunate he was to have a partner like Berberian who could shape the phrases to his idiosyncratic needs. No one has ever, to my knowledge mastered his distinctive melismas as she has. Towards the end, she recites, as in spoken language. It’s a contrast to the musical shaping of the earlier music, yet it also bridges a return to the orchestral section that follows. Yet the music itself reflects speech – sudden outbursts and moments of quietness, the scurrying single notes like scraps of conversation. The Stück für Orchester mit gesprochenen Einwürfen is a fascinating interplay; disjointed interjections of speech over long expressive lines in the music.