Recording of October 2018: Berio, Boulez, Ravel: Orchestral Works

Berio, Boulez, Ravel: Sinfonia, Notations I–IV, La Valse
Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Roomful of Teeth
Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1018 (CD, 2.0- and 5.1-channel downloads at 24/96). 2018. Rosalie Contreras, Elena Dubinets, exec. prods.; Dmitriy Lipay, prod., eng.; Alexander Lipay, eng. DDD. TT: 58:20
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

What ties Luciano Berio's boundary-breaking Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra (1968–69) to Pierre Boulez's out-there Notations I–IV for Orchestra (1945/1978) to Maurice Ravel's progressively off-kilter La Valse (1906–1920)? The Seattle Symphony's about-to-depart music director, Ludovic Morlot, cites their "ingenious transformation of pre-existing musical material or styles." I'm also inclined to say that it's their descent into chaos, even madness, which these performances transcend with an impeccably controlled, highly refined aesthetic, which I auditioned in 24/96 2-channel.

The five-movement Sinfonia, which here lasts almost 35 minutes, is the wildest of the bunch: a crazy collage of orchestral snippets and barely intelligible, intentionally disorganized sounds and texts sung in multiple languages. The violent outbursts in several of its movements reflect the turmoil of the late 1960s and the assassination, in April 1968, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, it was composed to mark the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Berio conducted the NYP in the premiere, and the Swingle Singers were the vocalists in the work's first recording, for Columbia, in the original four-movement version.

The Sinfonia's astounding opening movement includes excerpts from Claude Lévi-Strauss's Le Cru et le Cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), spoken and intoned over orchestral punctuations. The second movement, O King, dedicated to MLK, includes a shocking drum thwack that, to my ears, represents the fatal shot. Although King's name is uttered at the end, I've listened to multiple recordings, including this one, without once being able to hear it. But trying to discern words can hardly prepare you for the major wallop of the third movement, in which strains of the scherzo of Mahler's Symphony 2 alternate with texts by Becket and others, the most intelligible phrase being a repeated "Keep going!" Interwoven are excerpts of music by Beethoven, Berg, Berio, Berlioz, Boulez, Brahms, Debussy, Globokar, Hindemith, Pousseur, Ravel, Schönberg, Stockhausen, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, and Webern. I don't know how many listenings by musicologists it took to figure that out.

Berio at first ended the Sinfonia with a relatively short, curiously subdued fourth movement, but soon added a quasi-summation of all that comes before that's equally baffling in its complexity and lasts nearly eight minutes.

Of the three recent recordings of the Sinfonia available in high resolution, Seattle's is unquestionably the most successful. In performance, rather than placing his eight singers in front of the orchestra, Morlot integrated them within the orchestral fabric, and used eight small amplifier/speaker systems to help their voices rise above the din. In energy and thrust, the artistry of the Grammy-nominated and Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth shares much with the Swingles. RoT's approach is certainly preferable to the over-polite Synergy Vocals on the recording by Josep Pons and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi)—that bunch sounds as if none of them would dare set foot in New York City. Roomful of Teeth also wins out over the heavily accented singing in the recording by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and soloists under Hannu Lintu (Ondine).

While no one approaches the premiere recording's violence and abruptness of transitions, rendered even more impactful by the rather harsh Columbia sound, no engineer conveys space, depth, hall boundaries, and bass as well as Seattle's Dmitriy Lipay. (He also makes Seattle's Benaroya Hall sound far more resonant and alive than it actually does.) Morlot may not make you jump as far out of your seat as Berio in the premiere (which lacks the fifth movement), but the sonic beauty of the playing and singing, and the different pacing, are equally valid. The recording should sound spectacular in the 5.1-channel hi-rez surround-sound file, which I haven't heard.

Morlot performs Boulez's own orchestral arrangement of the first four of his 12 Notations for Piano, composed in 1945 when Boulez was a student at the Paris Conservatoire. Recorded in the maximally contrasting sequence of I, IV, III, II, per Boulez's suggestion, their extreme dissonance and complexity actually sound restrained and intelligible after Berio's Sinfonia. No description can adequately convey just how beautiful these works are, and it is that beauty that Morlot most emphasizes.

The only weak part of this program is Morlot's interpretation of La Valse. Despite Ravel's description of the 12-minute piece as an "apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which was linked in my mind with an impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny leading to death," Morlot resists whirling too fast, and in doing so shortchanges both the music and its embodiment of the effect on Ravel's psyche of the devastation and suffering of World War I and the collapse of the old order. The version by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (SACD, RCA Living Stereo) is preferable. Nonetheless, for superbly engineered recordings of two great late-20th-century B's, Seattle's latest issue is a must.—Jason Victor Serinus

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes, this is an outstanding Sinfonia but the stereo experience simply pales in comparison to the surround experience which is, afaik, unparalleled. The distribution of the voices takes great advantage of the additional dimensions.

And, yes, it is better than Lintu's limp performance and Pons' as well. The only real competition, musically speaking, is Péter Eötvös conducting the Göteborg Symfoniker and London Voices on DGG.