Berio’s Sinfonia Becomes Basic Rep on Ondine

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

With this release, it’s probably safe to say that Berio’s iconic Sinfonia has become a repertory staple. It certainly has enjoyed enough recordings, starting with the composer’s own, and including versions by Boulez, Eötvös, Bychkov, and Chailly. What makes this recording special, in its way, is the very “ordinariness” of the interpretation. It’s a cool, clean performance that seems to pose few challenges to the performers, never mind disconcerting the listener.

Gone are the days when we needed specialist vocal ensembles like the Swingle Singers or Electric Phoenix to handle Berio’s multi-textual lines. Here we have eight fine singers who aren’t even credited on the tray card (though they are mentioned in the booklet interior). The actual text is well submerged in the orchestral lines, and the phantasmagorical scherzo based on that in Mahler’s Second Symphony, with its quotations of everything from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to La Mer, Der Rosenkavalier, and La Valse, flows along without any special emphasis given to those foreign “visitors”. It all seems so normal, perhaps too normal, too uneventful, to be ideally compelling, but as I said, this very normalcy is certainly striking if you know the work from its previous incarnations.

As for the remainder of the program, Berio’s orchestration of Boccherini’s Ritirata Notturna di Madrid is just that, and it’s charming. Calmo, composed in memory of Bruno Maderna, is scored for mezzo-soprano and 22 instruments. The title says it all: the music drifts along atonally, with Virpi Räisänen an impressive soloist, singing with none of that “modern music” screechiness. The piece is still pretty much unlistenable, not because it’s difficult but because it’s boring–but don’t blame the performers. You may feel differently.

An interesting disc, then, and extremely well-engineered in both regular stereo and SACD audio, but it’s curious how little avant-garde this stuff sounds today.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Sinfonia: Chailly (Decca)

    Sinfonia; Quattro versioni originali della Ritirata Notturna di Madrid di L. Boccherini; Calmo

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