BERIO: Sequenzas I-XIV.
Nora Shulman (flute); Erica Goodman (harp); Tony Arnold (soprano); Boris
Berman (piano); Alain Trudel (trombone); Steven Dann (viola); Matej Sarc
(oboe); Jasper Wood (violin); Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet); Guy
Few (trumpet); Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar); Ken Munday (bassoon);
Joseph Petric (accordion); Darrett Adkins (cello); Wallace Halladay (saxophones).
Naxos 8.557661-63 (B) (DDD) TT: 181:59
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For some, Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was long a bête noir of contemporary
music. Apparently he scared some listeners so much that they forgot to
really listen, preferring to bring instead a grab-bag of adjectives that
they could apply to most prominent composers of the period: "cerebral," "soulless," and
their Roget equivalents. For me, Berio depended less on "intellectual" manipulations
than many, especially his compatriot Luigi Nono. Indeed, his music showed
a reliance, sometimes an over-reliance, on intuition and the feelings of
the moment. I remember a story once told me by a composition professor
(with a masters in math) who had gotten a grant to work at the Princeton
computer-music project. This was in the days before synthesizers and PC-sequencers
(indeed, PCs), when computers took up large rooms, programs were typed
on punch cards or teletype machines, and a composer had to specify all
the components of a single note, including wave forms and overtones. The
professor worked four months of very full days to produce two minutes worth
of music. Berio blew in one day and began to twirl dials and push cables
into jacks. According to the prof, Berio got nothing usable, perhaps overtones
only bats could hear.
From the early Folk Songs through the Sinfonia and the Serenade to his
final works, Berio always struck me as a lyrical composer, concerned
about the long musical line, even though his "melodies" were hardly
conventional or even, in many cases, hummable. The fourteen Sequenzas,
mainly for solo melody instruments , run throughout the last forty years
of his career. This is the second recording of the complete series, although
it lacks the verses the composer wanted recited before each item (for everything,
see Mode 161-163, which also features performances by some of the dedicatees).
Because most of these pieces belong to single-line instruments like oboe
and flute, we get some very interesting takes on how a musical line functions.
The great model is, of course, Bach, who not only crafted ingenious watchworks
for violin, cello, and flute but also made danceable, delightful music.
The solo genre bristles with traps, which Bach seems never to have had
to consider, all the while never falling in, so "natural" is
the music. Even great composers founder in solo works. I love Hindemith's
music, including his chamber music, but his sonatas for solo strings sound
cramped, constricted. Berio's Sequenzas have the ingenuity, although I'd
be stretching things to say you can dance to them. Nevertheless, they kept
my interest, at any rate. Typically, I grabbed on at the very beginning
and held on as the composer took me to surprising places. They cover a
wide emotional range and often contain great humor. Predictable, these
things are not.
Highlights of the set begin with the first track, in which the solo flute
darts, flits, and hovers like a hummingbird. The coolly meditative second
Sequenza for harp gets to the soul of the instrument. On the other hand,
the Sequenza III, perhaps the best-known of the set, I've never liked.
It always struck me as a catalogue of virtuoso vocal technique -- not
surprising, since the composer wrote it for his ex-wife, Cathy Berberian,
sing anything (and sometimes did) -- rather than something expressive.
Number four turns the piano into a chamber ensemble, with its juxtapositions
of planes of music -- high, medium, and low registers -- and a frenetic
energy reminiscent of a Charlie Parker solo. The fifth, for trombone,
does the same with a melody instrument, making a polyphonic composition
a monophonic one. Like Sequenza III, the trombonist trots out tricks
and timbres, new and old, to help the illusion, but here the virtuoso
The three Sequenzas for strings -- numbers VI, VIII, and XIV for viola,
violin, and cello, respectively -- show Berio's inventiveness, as well
as his ability to take from a wide variety of sources. The character
and conceits of each one differ. The piece for viola begins with virtuosic
agitated chords (Richard Whitehouse's succinct liner notes suggest Paganini),
from which the player begins to carve a melody. The music becomes predominantly
linear as it progresses. It suffers from its length, however, taking
too long to establish its point. The Sequenza for violin takes off from
Bach, specifically the celebrated chaconne from the second partita. Bach
inspires Berio to the top of his game. This is probably the finest item
in the Sequenzas. The Sequenza for cello, the last of the set, while
not up to that level (very few pieces are), nevertheless delights, as
gets to recreate the music of the Indian subcontinent, especially the
sitar and the tabla. I felt as if I sat in at a Ravi Shankar concert.
This willingness to take in diverse musical traditions and styles also
shows up in Sequenza XIII for accordion. Subtitled "chanson," the
piece takes on the character of a nocturne, a melancholy turn by the Seine
at night perhaps. A beautiful, poetic work, it nevertheless explores new
sounds and textures from an instrument so often the butt of jokes.
I should mention the items that never have worked for me, chief among
them the Sequenzas IX and X, for trumpet and pianoresonance and for guitar.
I perceive absolutely no logic to the guitar piece, after years of listening.
It remains a mess and no fooling, one of those works where Berio seems
to simply be piling on measures. The trumpet piece first of all goes
way too long. The trumpet's expressive and tonal range is comparatively
limited and rather stark, besides. It's no accident that works for solo
trumpet (like Kent Kennan's classic sonata) tend to brevity. Recognizing
this, Berio tries to overcome the instrument's constraints by having
somebody silently press down piano keys and the sustaining pedal, so
that the trumpet
creates a soft halo of chords in addition to its line. It's a lovely
effect, but it's not one that in itself sustains interest over the long
get 17 minutes of long haul, making this the longest of the Sequenzas.
I give up caring about 8 minutes in.
On the other hand, while I never cuddled up to the works for oboe and
clarinet, I love them in Berio's arrangements for saxophone. What seemed
playful and smoky.
This recording amounts to a largely-Canadian affair. The engineering
is first-rate, the performers spectacular. Standing out are Nora Shulman
flute, Steven Dann on viola, the pianist Boris Berman and violinist Jasper
Wood, cellist Darren Adkins, Alain Trudel on trombone, and Wallace Halladay
blowing soprano and alto sax. Soprano Tony Arnold knocked me over with
a voice of unbelievable flexibility, on a par with Cathy Berberian herself,
as she turned herself practically into an electronic tape from the Sixties.
Dynamically and color-wise, she switches on a dime. It's almost like
watching a circus act.
Hail Naxos for committing to a wide range of music, especially largely
unfamiliar, "hard" music, in addition to the more immediately-accessible.
You can get the Sequenzas from other labels, but this set yields nothing
in performance quality and costs a lot less.
S.G.S. (October 2006)