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 Valdepenas (clarinet); Guy Few
(trumpet); Pablo Sainz Villegas (guitar); Ken Munday (bassoon); Joseph
Petric (accordion); Darrett Adkins (cello); Wallace Halladay
Naxos 8.557661-63 Total time: 181:59 (3 CDs)
Summary for the Busy Executive: Beauty and boredom in fine performances.
For some, Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was long a bete 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, who could 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 from a monophonic one.
Like Sequenza III, the trombonist trots out tricks and timbres, new
and old, to help the illusion, but here the virtuoso writing works.
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 far 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 the player 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 on 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 haul. We 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
bland becomes playful and smoky.
This recording amounts to a largely-Canadian affair. The engineering
is first-rate, the performers spectacular. Standing out are Nora Shulman
on 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.