The Piano works of Luciano Berio  
by Carmelo di Gennaro

Luciano Berio always believed in the expressive possibilities of the piano, and this is proved by the fact that his compositions dedicated to this instrument can be found with continuous regularity during his entire creative period, from 1947 (Piccola Suite) until 2001 (Sonata per pianoforte solo); his position must not appear reckoned with in advance, even because – after the great Romantic florescence – the main instrument of chamber music during 19th century didn’t definitely get an overwhelming appreciation with today’s composers. Together with Berio, nonetheless, we can find distinguished names (Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Donatoni, Sciarrino and on a slightly less proportion – only concerning quantity and never quality – Nono and Henze) who are in open contrast with – for example – the position of Giacomo Manzoni, who sees the expressive possibilities of the piano as all but exhausted (his unique composition for piano and orchestra, Masse, shows a massive and percussive interpretation of the piano, which rather tends to depict its barbaric and atavistic nature).
On the other hand, as he himself wrote, Berio inherited the love for the piano – and for all keyboard instruments as well – from his grandfather Adolfo, his first harmony teacher, exceptional organist and inexhaustible composer of waltzes, polkas and mazurkas (for four-hand piano) dedicated to “Austrian princesses or Swedish queens” (Berio).
It should not be forgotten that Berio grew artistically as pianist, but due to a hand injury suffered in 1944 he was forced to stop studying this instrument, dedicating himself thereafter entirely to the composition: he then became a pupil at the Milan Conservatory of Giorgio  Federico Ghedini and Giulio Cesare Paribeni. The Petite Suite per Pianoforte (1947) dates back to these years; it would have also been the first of his compositions to be played in front of an audience, a pièce yet composed without any serial technique and which therefore results in a malicious parody of baroque dance forms, among which an outstanding, ironic Gavotta built with large, deliberately exaggerated intervals.

Enzo Restagno writes that in this Petite Suite “the historians agree upon finding inside it some influences from Ravel, Prokof’ev and the neoclassic culture. We will therefore limit ourselves in recognising the unusual skilfulness of the composer in assimilating these influences, a quality which, in the future compositions, is destined to expand and to engender propitious conflicts”. As a matter of fact, Berio showed a factual ability in appropriating the music and the styles of other composers, re-elaborating them in the meantime in an outmost personal way: emblematic (and wonderful) is the case of Rendering, from Schubert.

The Cinque Variazioni (1953), together with the first two Boulez’s Sonate, represent – in the wake of Webern’s Variazioni op. 27 – a noticeable contribution to the application of the serial writing to the piano; Boulez’s austere structuralism, however, becomes always diluted – in Berio’s compositions – by an inborn lyricism, able to avoid any expressive aridity (as written by François-René Tranchefort).

In 1965 Berio composes his Sequenza IV for piano: Sequenze are nothing else than soloistic works (going from Sequenza I for flute, 1958, to Sequenza XIV for cello, 2002) usually written for great virtuosi of the instrument (like Severino Gazzelloni, Cathy Berberian, Heinz Holliger, Rohan ce Saram ecc.); some Sequenze eventually bred the Chemins’ series, where the soloistic part is enriched – without any alteration – with an orchestral part, which acts however as a mere comment. It’s worth to report the unabridged annotation – written by Luciano Berio himself – to the composition: “Sequenza IV for piano has to be considered as an exploration journey inside the known- and unknown regions of the instrumental colours and articulation: two independent, harmonic ‘sequences’ develop together at the same time, sometimes even interacting between themselves; one is real, left to the keyboard, and the other one is almost ‘virtual’, left to the pedal”.

Philippe Albèra affirms that “The concept of virtuosity in Berio […] is not a plain technical exhibition, but instead a boost towards new frontiers of writing and expression”. As a matter of fact, Sequenza IV underlines the “improvisation” concept, straight from the jazz (in those years Berio was living and working in the United States), and therefore the composer recommends considering this aspect (the improvisation, that is) during the execution of the pièce. Under a compositional point of view, Sequenza IV puts two kinds of chords in contrast, where the former is based on triads (which can be major, minor, exceeding, but which will considered only by their colour, and not by their functional harmony) and the latter – not easily definable – is based on contiguous groups of sounds which resemble it to the cluster. This contrast remains the composition’s main generating principle during all its length. The first type of chord unwinds also melodic figurations, which are progressively introduced through an interaction with the remaining material. Another key element is the third pedal (resonance pedal); Albèra again writes that “The harmonic structures grabbed by the third pedal and maintained in the shadow of the main ones strictly depend from these, but they do nonetheless enjoy their own evolution. They create a perspective and seem to be a kind of comment to the normal execution. […] In this way, Berio doesn’t create a polyphony of notes but an actual polyphony of actions, a kind of metapolyphony which generates, undoubtedly, the gestural – even theatrical – dimension of the performance”.

The same effect, aimed to obtain many possible listening layers, is researched by Berio in Rounds (1967), originally written for harpsichord and later transcribed for piano: a search – which foresees the resonance pedal’s (third pedal) usage - for transmitting the feeling of a multiplication of the original material, which virtually plays a kind of interpolation with the outflowing resonance: the final effects are unpredictable and not easy to master on paper.

Despite the fact that the miniatures represented by the Six Encores had been composed in different periods, they constitute an “eloquent evidence of the technical continuity which permeates the mature work of Berio” (D. Osmond-Smith). The first Encore, Wasserklavier, was composed after a conversation among friends in New York about the interpretation of Brahms’ Intermezzo in B-minor and Schubert’s Fantasia in F-minor for four-hand piano; once again, then, the relationship with the story of the music plays out. Berio saw the composition as a musical comment to that evening’s speculations: is not a coincidence that the F-minor tone is present during all the length of this short pièce. Erdenklavier (1969) starts instead from a small group of notes, which attract the other ones in a determined melodic range: with an usual procedure, some notes are prolonged in order to build a kind of resounding horizon, a “harmonic sheath” (Osmond-Smith). The Luftklavier (1985) comes after the undergone experience of the wonderful Concerto per due pianoforti (1972-73) and with the equally wonderful Points on the curve to find… (1974, which will lead to the composition of Echoing Curves, 1988, written for Daniel Barenboim). From the materials of these project broke out the above-mentioned Luftklavier and the Feuerklavier, 1989 (which conclude a mini-cycle inside the Six Encores, dedicated to the Elements): from the simple ostinato of the first fragment we move to the second one’s rapid figurations, which show a clear illustrating intent. The cycle ends, as foresaid, in 1990 with Brin (an exploration of a well defined field of heights, but always to be performed “doux et immobile in pppp”) and Leaf, which reviews the first- and last pages of Sequenza IV, putting in the background just a single chord, always maintained with the resonance pedal and interpolated by strong higher staccato chords.


Carmelo Di Gennaro