Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio – Arditti Quartet (18 April)

Sequenza XIV (for cello) [UK premiere] *

Arditti Quartet
[Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello)]

Rohan de Saram (cello) *

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 April, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

While not designated ’string quartets’ as such, Berio’s four ’string quartet works’ – threading through his output at roughly one per decade – are a significant post-war contribution to the medium, and work well heard over the course of a recital. Certainly the juxtaposing of Quartetto (1956) with Glosse (1997) makes clear the musical distance travelled over that time.

In the former, the second movement is essentially a rewrite of the first – modified so that texture and figuration take on a heightened expression: an elegantly Classical approach to quartet writing at the height of the avant-garde. In the latter piece, motivic and textural fragments coalesce in a tantalising anticipation of a quartet that Berio planned but, in the event, decided not to write. Yet the all-round coherence that emerges gives not the least impression of discontinuity, a tribute to the galvanising effect which Berio instilled into his material, as well as the distinctiveness of the ideas themselves.

Sincronie (1964) is a tougher proposition – not least because the composer’s description of the four instruments drawn into a homophonic unit, working through the same sequence of harmonic blocks, gives little indication of its formal complexity. As in his orchestral and theatrical works of the period, relatively well-defined material is put through a far-reaching process of transformation – creating a labyrinthine structure unlikely to sound remotely similar on any two consecutive listens.

A process not so much revisited in Notturno (1993) as heard through a greater textural continuity. Yet the work is aurally even more insubstantial – a metamorphosis of gestures explored intensively yet speculatively: a substantial work whose trajectory is – in the composer’s memorable description – “… built in unspoken words and on unfinished discourses,” and of a tonal and expressive refinement such as Berio often achieved in his later years, but never so subtly or poetically as here.

This could only be the conclusion to the evening, and was preceded by the last of the Sequenza series (2003). Originally compact studies in instrumental virtuosity, several of the later pieces assumed expansive proportions – but, at 12 minutes, Sequenza XIV is concentrated as well as formally self-explanatory. Attracted by the properties of the Kandyan drum, which is cellist Rohan de Saram’s other instrument, Berio incorporates percussive effects on the body of the cello that blend naturally with pizzicato-like chords – a combination alternating with intensely melodic bowed sections. A characterful conclusion to a ground-breaking series, played with easeful mastery by de Saram.

No recording yet of this last Sequenza, but the previous 13 are available on an excellent 3-CD set – with several of the later pieces performed by the dedicatees – on DG 457 038-2. The four quartet works are collected on a recent disc, the Arditti Quartet playing with similar authority and insight as that evinced at the present recital [NAÏVE MO 782155].

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