Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Berio Sinfonia & Rossini Stabat Mater

The Swingle Singers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia/Pappano
Royal Albert Hall
Prom 4 - 16th July 2007


Considering Prom 4 featured two rarely performed pieces, and one of them ‘modern music' (if that really is the best term to use in describing Berio's Sinfonia) , the Albert Hall was surprisingly well attended. Some might say that it was actually due to the fact that the Sinfonia and Rossini's Stabat Mater are so rarely performed in the UK, falling into the strange category of unheard masterworks; works such as Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds and Nono's Il Canto Sospeso are others. Indeed the Nono is particularly interesting in this connection, being another major work for voices and orchestra by an Italian composer, the link between the two pieces in the Prom.


Opening with the Berio, fronted by the Swingle Singers - the soloists in the Sinfonia 's première in 1969, albeit in a different guise - we wanted to be really drawn into the piece, but with some balance issues, that became problematic. The Sinfonia is notoriously difficult to balance, both on recording and in live performance; the sheer density of the overlapping vocal parts and the interaction between voices and orchestra can make decisiding what is important very difficult.


On the famous Boulez recording with the Swingles ( Warner Classics 8573-89226-2 ) for example, the voices are unrealistically loud, regardless of the specified amplification. Eötvös' more recent DG recording ( DG 477 5380 ) is in my opinion preferable, though the voices don't have the gravitas of the Boulez performance.


Back in the Albert Hall however, the amplification of the voices proved to be the downfall of this performance; though this time, the soloists were loud enough. Strangely, the Swingles travel with a sound engineer who works on all their performances and is constantly changing levels in both their classical and popular styles. Since they have performed the Sinfonia many times in the last twelve months, one would have thought their engineer would have been used to it, and been able to make changes on-the hoof, particularly in the tenor's monologue in the third movement, which never really came to the fore, rendering all the orchestral quotations totally meaningless.


That said, the Albert Hall is a nightmarish acoustic to perform in, since it feels as though one is completely alone, so some errors in balance might be forgiven.


To be fair however, the third movement was the greatest casualty. Indeed the opening movement, where the strings and voices take on the resonances of the initial tam-tam stroke, had been sublime - that single gesture clarifying why Berio chose the Swingles' pure, non vibrato style for the piece.


Electronic-style techniques abound in both the first and fourth movements, not only illustrated by the tam-tam resonance, but by the very exciting, and perfectly executed interplay between the three percussionists placed strategically within the orchestra: one on either side at the back, and one in the centre, effects like this proving that a live performance is infinitely more revealing than any recording.


In truth, the performances were superb from all the musicians - I'm sure the Swingles were wonderful too, it would be unfair to blame them for the poor balance when they were all using microphones, especially when their microphone work is usually impeccable.


Some might have considered the textures a little muddy at time, but personally I rather enjoyed the unfocussed nature of the performance, especially in the third and fifth movements, where the various musical allusions remain just that - allusions. We were completely aware of what we were meant to be hearing, but never lost the sense that they were part of a greater whole.


The second half of the concert consisted solely of Rossini's Stabat Mater . As a card-carrying modernist, the prospect of an hour-long Classical piece, completely unknown to the majority of the audience, was less than attractive - how wrong I was. Not plagued by the issues found in the Berio, Rossini's stunning orchestration allowed the vocal soloists to come to the fore, with particular praise going to the bass, Ildar Abdrazakov. Rossini is the master of giving the voice space, keeping the orchestra out of the vocalist's range to ensure everything is heard.


The programme notes somewhat enigmatically stated that Rossini, like Mozart or even Schoenberg, did not modify his compositional voice to suite sacred music, which seemed rather strange before the piece, but which all became clear in good time. The general feel of the Stabat Mater never seemed to leave the opera house, each movement like the beginning of a new scene in an opera, with similar treatment of the voices. One audience member (a clergyman) on the BBC's proms feedback forum said that the piece was ‘too fun for Good Friday'. And fun it was, proving to be a rather brief hour.


Nathaniel Cope

Comment received from The Swingle Singers:

The Swingle Singers performed Sinfonia many times under the supervision of
Luciano Berio himself.  This includes several members of the current
incarnation of Swingle Singers. As such, the level of amplification is set
at the levels that Berio himself clearly indicated on a number of occasions.
Berio was always very clear that in particular the text of the 3rd Movement
should be "almost inaudible", that the audience should be grasping to hear
clearly what is said, but they get only glimpses of it, when the orchestral
texture breaks for a moment and allows it to come through. He was also
explicit that the text should not be delivered with emotion, but it is more
of an unemotional and undynamic monotone - a recitation that underlines the
movement and weaves its way through. Indeed in our sound engineer's score,
there are specific markings made by Berio himself whilst "instructing" our
engineer how to engineer the work.