Reflecting On 1968 Through The Glass Of Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’

Ludovic Morlot put together a synergistic program of Berio, Boulez and Ravel on a new CD with his Seattle Symphony. (Brandon Patoc)

Berio: Sinfonia, Boulez: Notations I – IV For Orchestra, Ravel: La valse. Roomful Of Teeth (vocals), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor).
Seattle Symphony Media SSM1018. Total time 58:20 (2018).

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – It is most appropriate and enterprising for the Seattle Symphony to release a recording of Luciano’s Berio’s Sinfonia in 2018. As it happens, it is also the best, most synergistically programmed disc I’ve heard yet from Ludovic Morlot, who is about to depart Seattle in 2019 and will evidently do so on a high note.

Why is 2018 the right time for this? Because for months now, the media has been conducting a running commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous events that happened during 1968, the year in which Sinfonia was launched. The key is the third movement in the center of the piece, where the scherzo from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 runs like an underground river throughout its length, occasionally surfacing amidst a collage of vocal babble from a Samuel Beckett text, a roll call of the performers, and snatches of Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven and Stravinsky. Along with The Beatles’ similarly conceived collage, “Revolution No. 9,” Sinfonia reflects and refracts the chaos, the high hopes and dashed dreams of that year more vividly than just about any other piece of music.

The first recording of `Sinfonia,’ minus the then-unwritten fifth movement.

Up until now, no recording of Sinfonia has been able to recapture the atmosphere of 1968 quite as intensely and movingly as the New York Philharmonic world-premiere recording led by Berio, with the original Swingle Singers hurling the words in our faces. (That LP, though, only contained four movements, for Berio did not add a fifth one until later.) The others tend to have recessed, often overly polite vocals and conductors – Riccardo Chailly, Péter Eötvös, Josep Pons, even Pierre Boulez – who do not take full advantage of the orchestral cataclysms.

But the Seattle disc does have impact and bite, thanks in great part to the youthful, in this case aptly named vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. They tear into the words from the outset of that extraordinary Mahler movement, bringing out singing lines that had gone buried since the Berio recording. On the other end of the intensity scale, they also make moving work of the gently-chiming second movement, “O King,” that specifically memorializes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered in April 1968. Morlot and the orchestra also tap into Sinfonia’s heightened passions more fully than most of their predecessors, aided by engineering that seems to be getting steadily better as Seattle’s home-grown record label adds to its catalog.

Notations I-IV For Orchestra are lavish, sometimes violent extrapolations of four of Boulez’s 12 original 1945 Notations for piano – another representation of 20th century chaos when heard in the context of Sinfonia. Morlot and company leap into them with an exuberance matching that of Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic at a Wien Modern concert (DG), though the latter recording has just a touch more ferocity. But where is Notation VII, the only other one that Boulez was able to orchestrate?

For another depiction of chaos in a world coming apart at the seams – this time in the wake of World War I – Ravel’s La valse makes a terrific closing statement, especially since it is quoted several times in Sinfonia. Here, Morlot has acres of competition. A handful of precious slowdowns aside, he does OK, well enough to convey the message and tie the whole program together.

In a bit less than an hour, this CD gives us a concise earful of how music could capture the feeling of cataclysmic change during the 20th century.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.