London Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding
Folk Songs. In 1964, not quite the thing for an avant-gardist. Already the title locates the piece somewhere between the hippie movement, left-wing freedom songs, and a whiff of petit-bourgeois tendencies. Luciano Berio knew all of this. But he had a winning cards up his sleeve. Namely Gustav Mahler, a composer then experiencing a renaissance. And wandering through his music are any number of folk songs. Not just texts from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), which he transfigured musically into song, at times transplanting them into the symphonies, whether with words or without. Folk melodies swarm through his vast musical landscapes. And this is where Berio comes in. Here, he thought, I can go further. With folk songs from around the world: from Armenia and Azerbaijan, from Italy and France, from as far away as North America. Each set in a new environment. In his environment. Like Mahler, he choreographed the nearness of the foreign.
Coming after Folk Songs, as with Mahler, was Sinfonia. Particularly in the central movement, it is a palimpsest composed over Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection. The central movement, the “path of the world scherzo,” served Berio as a receptacle to accommodate all types of “musical myths,” intimations and allusions ranging Bach to Stockhausen. Mahler serves to organize the splinters like a magnet under glass. Berio then moves them around.
Incidentally, the idea of borrowing materials from the experience of transit is older than Mahler. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is the perfect example. Making symphonic guest appearance here are the songs of wandering pilgrims, the melodies of the pifferari, the melancholic songs of the (eternal) night, and the electrifying dances of a folk festival. And where are we, the listeners? There exists no more inspiring travel literature than this composed cruise through diverse styles, forms of expression, modes of experience, and historico-musical landscapes.