Sunday, June 21, 2015

Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV

This is a spellbinding and utterly absorbing three-disc set of performances, released by the Naxos label in 2006, on an array of solo instruments written by the Italian composer over a forty-four year period from 1958 until just a year prior to his death in 2003.

The lengths of the sequences run from just over five minutes for the first of the lot for flute to sequence ten on trumpet with piano resonance at just over seventeen minutes.  Other instruments featured are harp, piano, trombone, viola, oboe, violin, clarinet, guitar, bassoon, accordion, cello, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and the female voice.

The recordings were made between 1998 and 2004 and are uniformly stunning in the composing, beautiful in the playing, and especially crystalline in the recording.  In fact, the use of St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada provided a very particular environment in which the sounds emanating from the instrument filled the structure and almost makes the venue another instrument with the rich timbres and sustained echo adding so much to each performance.

Of particular note is Berio's extensive use of extended techniques beyond traditional methods of performance on any given instruments.  These can be done any number of ways in terms of tapping rhythms on the body of an instrument, overblowing through a mouthpiece to create multiphonic sounds, bowing or plucking strings on a different part of a fret or rethinking how an instrument is generally used (such as a harp being played more aggressively through tapping on the body as well as varied strumming.)

Perhaps the most interesting of the extended techniques comes in the aforementioned sequence ten, in which the trumpeter blows into an open piano to generate the resonance referred  to in the title.  Also amazing is the sequence for bassoon (twelve), in which it appears that the player is utilizing circular breathing to continue the performance all the way through--this is truly amazing to hear.

It is probably too much to attempt to listen to all three discs and fourteen sequences at one time, but with each disc running at approximately an hour, taking them individually makes for an easier digesting of the rich content of the compositions and a fuller appreciation for the playing and, again, for that venue.

This listener, very new to Berio, having only heard his vocal masterwork Coro, approached the box that way, taking each disc on its own and absorbing what was heard before moving on to the next. Also very helpful are Richard Whitehouse's liner notes, pointing out that the complexity of the composing and technical virtuosity are matched by the emotive expressiveness brought to the performances by the musicians.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement in this series, though, is the way in which Berio wrote in a modern fashion while making reference to tradition.  This is not an extraordinarily difficult set of recordings to listen to--at least, not in three doses as noted above.

Someone who doesn't have a particular interest in so-called avant garde classical music, but may be willing to venture beyond traditional expressions on a variety of largely tried and true instruments, might find that taking the sequenzas in one disc at a time can be highly rewarding.  This listener has even listened to these recordings in two consecutive home gym workouts, which might (or might not) mean something in terms of the power and complexity of the sounds developing a strong sense of highly creative energy.

As is so often the case, Naxos is to be commended for putting together such a gorgeously-recorded, stunningly-performed and very affordable set of this remarkable music.

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