Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
Founder: Len Mullenger

REVIEW - January 11th, 2011

Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
CD 1 - Orchestral Transcriptions
Hornpipe as Hommage to Uncle Alfred by Henry Purcell (1969) [1:02]
Art of fugue (Contrapunctus XIX) by J.S. Bach (2001) [8:34]
Four overlapping versions of the "Ritirata notturna di Madrid" by L. Boccherini (1975) [6:28]
Variation on Papageno's air "Ein Mädchen oder W." by W.A. Mozart (1956) [2:34]
Rendering for orchestra by F.Schubert (1990) [32:46]
Sonata for clarinet in F minor Op.120 No.1 by J. Brahms (1986) [22:45]
CD 2 - Piano Works
Petite Suite pour Piano (1947) [9:19]
5 Variations (1953) [6:46]
Sequenza IV for piano (1965) [11:14]
Rounds (1967) [4:06]
Six Encores pour piano
Brin (1990) [1:45]
Leaf (1990) [1:23]
Wasserklavier (1966) [1:29]
Erdenklavier (1969) [1:32]
Luftklavier (1985) [2:46]
Feuerklavier (1989) [3:04]
CD 3 - Violin Works[16:10]
Sequenza VIII for violin (1976) [12:35]
Two Works for violin & piano (1951, rev. 1968) [6:14]
34 Duets for two violins (1978-1983) [39:09]
CD 1: "Giuseppe Verdi" Symphony Orchestra of Milan/Riccardo Chailly, Fausto Ghiazza (clarinet Brahms, Sonata Op.120), rec. 25-28 August 2004, Auditorium di Milano; CD 2: Andrea Bacchetti (piano), rec. August 2000-August 2001, Accademia Pianistica Internazionale, Imola (Bologna); CD 3: Francesco D'Orazio (violin), Alessandro Tampieri (2nd violin: Duetti), Giampaolo Nuti (piano: Two Works). rec. 2006, details not given.
DECCA 476 3479 [3 CDs 75:00 + 43:24 + 58:45]

If this is Decca's new way of re-releasing "old " recordings, you can count me in. Yes, this is rather an unusual collection to fall under the Portrait category as there are vast areas of Berio's work which don't get a look-in. Nevertheless, this collection does show the great composer in a light which many of us probably didn't know existed.

The main disc for "undiscovered Berio" is that of the orchestral transcriptions. Expertly played by the "Giuseppe Verdi" Symphony Orchestra of Milan and led by Riccardo Chailly, a conductor who greatly admires Berio's work, this is a recording which oozes authenticity and warmth of expression. The short Hornpipe as Hommage to Uncle Alfred, a piece from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, acts as an overture to the disc's programme, with harpsichord and snare drum adding drive and sparkle to a transparently chamber-music setting consisting of no more than flute or oboe, clarinet, percussion, harpsichord, viola and cello. This is followed by a beautifully rendered orchestration of J.S. Bach's Contrapunctus XIX, the last and incomplete part of the Art of Fugue. Berio heightens the harmonic and melodic expressiveness of the music with clever and subtle instrumentation, the "sighing" descending lines and gently shifting harmonic progressions constantly changing timbre but almost always amidst a bath of warm sonorities, creating an aural picture of great emotional power. The final, unfinished moment is expressed with notes held into a final, decaying chord - a last echo, the intangible division between a life teeming with creativity, and the silence of death.

Warm sonorities are also a part of Boccherini's Four overlapping versions of the "Ritirata notturna di Madrid". This remarkable arrangement brings together the four different versions of a once famous piece called the Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid, and indeed the effect is of a vast street band passing by. There are no dissonant clashes, but plenty of mixing of elaborately varied treatments of the melody and Stravinsky-like austerity in the colouration of some of the wind treatment of the harmonies, all over a musette-like ground, a single note around which the entire piece revolves. More recognisably Berio-like intervention arises in the Variation on Papageno's air "Ein Mädchen oder W." by Mozart. This was part of a commission from the Donaueschingen Festival in 1956, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth. As dictated by the terms of the commission, the piece avoids any actual reference to the theme of the aria, but still somehow communicates Papageno's wit and Mozart's distinctive orchestral colourations.

The longest piece on the disc, Rendering, uses the orchestration of Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony, creating at once a performing version of that composer's sketches for a Symphony in D major D.936a, and an entirely new piece in which Berio explores "the injuries inflicted by time, the missing pieces, [which are] left visible", as Giordano Montecchi puts it in the booklet notes. The result is both a "restoration", giving us extensive swathes of new Schubert, juxtaposed with Berio's own uniquely theatrical vision of where Schubert and the present day meet and part company. These sections contrast with their luminous use of the celesta, and Berio's transparent lattice-work treatment of material and orchestration. In this way the scarred beauty of Schubert's remnants are given sensitive musico-medical attention, creating a genuine and endlessly fascinating "old-new/new-old" set of relationships. At the most basic level, Rendering can show newcomers to contemporary music how close the relationships can be between the music of today and that of lost eras from the past. All kinds of philosophical questions can also be raised and explored, but the bottom line is that this is a remarkably fine and extraordinarily fascinating work.

The final piece on this CD is an orchestral version of Brahms' Sonata for clarinet in F minor Op.120 No.1. This was written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and is, with a few minor additions, a fairly straight orchestration. Berio allows the music plenty of richly Germanic sonorities, and the results become a kaleidoscope of Brucknerian-Mahlerian-Straussian almost-moments, with Brahms' own characteristic melodic and harmonic gestures leading the musical dialogue between orchestra and soloist. This is a superbly performed finale for a disc which seems to radiate Mediterranean charm and light in its sonics, while at the same time exploring some deeply moving aspects of Western music. This disc is worth the value of the entire box on its own, so we're off to a good start.

Having already reviewed Andrea Bacchetti's disc of Berio's Piano Works, I don't propose going into it in great detail, and with apologies to maestro Bacchetti would point readers to my earlier remarks. This re-release preserves Bacchetti's personal notes "In memory of the maestro" and Carmelo Di Gennaro's text on the pieces in the booklet, and these details for each disc bestow a high quality feel to the set. One still has to live with the rather dry and somewhat muffled nature of the piano recording here, but Andrea Bacchetti's playing is technically brilliant and musically sensitive, his affinity with and love for Berio's music living in every note. The suitability of this programme for a "Portrait" release is also incontrovertible, with works ranging from the youthful 1947 Petite suite to the 1990 memorial for Michael Vyner, Leaf.

CD 3 covers a number of Violin Works. Starting with the seminal Sequenza VIII, I put Francesco D'Orazio's recording up against that of Irvine Arditti on my reference in the excellent set of the complete Sequenzas on the Mode label. Arditti is superbly controlled as one would expect, expressing the narrative qualities in the music, pointing out its polyphonic nature as well as the more down to earth, almost folk-like moments. D'Orazio is also excellent, powerful in the opening gestures, alert to the dynamic dualities in its various layers, expressive and intense in melodic passages, full of contrasts of colour and articulation. If I was forced to choose between these two I would ultimately go for Arditti. There are a few reasons for this, none of which should put anyone off exploring D'Orazio's fine performance. One is Arditti's clarity in the "micro" moments, those little sections almost like French keyboard ornamentation which live between the more recognisable motiefs. With D'Orazio these are more like taking a line for a walk, and with Arditti you have the feeling that you could pick out each note with a pair of tweezers and put it on your mantelpiece. This and other minor details makes Arditti easier to "follow", giving the music that bit more of a logical foundation and exposing most of its secrets almost from word go, where with D'Orazio you have a slightly more "play that bit again?" feeling. Again, these are all differences of small degree, and without that reference I would simply put down Francesco D'Orazio's recording as a very fine performance indeed and leave it at that. The balance from Decca is a little further distant to that in the Mode set, so that details are less exposed and the acoustic makes the listening experience perhaps a tad more realistic.

The Due Pezzi for violin and piano provide a welcome contrast from the intensity of the Sequenza. These are early works, but show Berio exploring both sonority and the kinds of development of musical material seen in Luigi Dallapiccola, for whom these pieces can be seen as a kind of tribute. Atonal writing allied with grounded compositional technique and a willingness and desire to be expressive make this pair of pieces interesting and enjoyable beyond expectations.

Looking at the 34 Duets for two violins, one immediately thinks of Bartók's work in this instrumentation, and indeed it was the lack of material for violin duet by a "great musician" which provided the challenge for Berio to make his own significant contribution.

These short works are played superbly by Francesco D'Orazio and Alessandro Tampieri, the recording putting them distinctly apart in terms of stereo separation, so that the dialogue nature of the pieces is as clear as one could imagine. Each piece is named after real people, and often close personal friends and colleagues. Little fragments of music used in other pieces sometimes crop up, like the openings of Bruno after Bruno Maderna, and chunks of Piero and Maurice, which I remember hearing as part of Berio's remarkable and incredibly moving Duo - "teatro immaginario" from 1982. The notable simplicity of some of the pieces sits cheek by jowl with more complex, enigmatic or demanding work: Pierre for instance quoting from Boulez's ...explosante-fixe... There are also some striking technical effects, such as the crystalline flageolet beauty of Tatjana. The attractive nature of the duets of the whole is both in their variety and in their directness of expression - you can play the wonderfully elegiac Aldo at my funeral if you can't think of anything else. One might not think nearly 40 minutes of two violins a very appealing prospect, but I would invite you to listen to all that tender beauty and think again. The entire list of pieces is: 1 Béla, 2 Shlomit, 3 Yossi, 4 Rodion, 5 Maja, 6 Bruno, 7 Camilla, 8 Peppino, 9 Marcello, 10 Giorgio Federico, 11 Valerio, 12 Daniela, 13 Jeanne, 14 Pierre, 15 Tatjana, 16 Rivi, 17 Leonardo, 18 Piero, 19 Annie, 20 Edoardo, 21 Fiamma, 22 Vinko, 23 Franco, 24 Aldo, 25 Carlo, 26 Henri, 27 Alfredo, 28 Igor, 29 Alfred, 30 Massimo, 31 Mauricio, 32 Maurice, 33 Lorin, 34 Lele.

While not by any means covering every aspect of Luciano Berio's remarkably strong and widely varied compositional output, this 3 CD set is nonetheless an extremely worthwhile and welcome one-stop place to visit some of his less well-known or perhaps less frequently performed pieces. The care given to this release's artwork and presentation is a real bonus, and the whole thing resonates with Italianate charm.

Dominy Clements