Mention Luciano Berio and I immediately think of the human voice, and of one voice in particular – that of his first wife, Cathy Berberian. Expressive, beguiling and one-of-a-kind, Berberian was a vocal chameleon; at home in a range of styles from Monteverdi to pop, and of course the perfect vehicle for Berio’s eclectic creations.
One of the better known of these creations is Berio’s five-movement Sinfonia from 1968. Having left behind his interest in serialism, Berio revels in an artistic freedom that heralds postmodernism. Written for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, the Sinfonia is a kaleidoscopic collage of texts and references.
The central, third movement uses the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony as a “skeleton” that emerges at various times from a whole range of other musical quotations. Preceding this is a movement entitled O King, in honour of Martin Luther King, in which phonetic elements eventually emerge to utter King’s name. Josep Pons and his forces make a very compelling case for the revival of this currently unfashionable music. Berio’s mixture of creative fun – and deep respect for music history and the voice – is very satisfying indeed.
Berio’s orchestration of Mahler’s Ten Early Lieder displays the same qualities. Sung with superb attention to textual detail by Matthias Goerne, these songs evoke Mahler’s visions with renewed intensity.