Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio – Opening Concert (London Sinfonietta/Diego Masson, 15 April)

Ritorno degli snovidenia

Clio Gould (violin)

Kim Kashkashian (viola)

Anssi Karttunen (cello)

London Sinfonietta
Diego Masson

Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 15 April, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The first night of London’s fortnight-long Berio festival, slightly less than a year after the death of the composer, aged 77, leads one to consider his achievement. What is the oeuvre that we are celebrating when we mark this career and its passing? With Berio’s contemporaries – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti (all born in the ’twenties), likewise the late Luigi Nono (what would have been his 80th-birthday this January seems to have passed entirely unnoticed) – it’s comparatively easy to have a sense of their identity, to sum up, even in a single sentence, their essential concerns.

With Berio, and whether one perceives in this a strength or a weakness, the controlling intelligence is so vast in its outreach, the distinction so hard to make between major and minor works, main roads and byways, that one is left with the impression simply of a human being who thinks music, and who lives and breathes it as a language. It is testament to contemporary complexity that this still doesn’t place him in the camp of Schiller’s “naïve” artist. Far from it: his ongoing preoccupation with the academic disciplines of linguistics and sociology – think of the importance of Lévi-Strauss to Berio’s Sinfonia, or read again Berio’s programme note for Voci, a brief essay on the act of transcription – attests to a supreme analytical intelligence.

Over the coming concerts, in a festival split between the South Bank and the Royal Academy of Music, orchestral works with an assortment of spatial arrangements, music for chorus and orchestra transformed by live electronics, tape pieces, piano music and string quartets, popular song arrangements and more will be heard – in an idiom ranging from straight transcription to cutting-edge experimentation and taking in any number of creative and re-creative urges along the way. Amidst all this bewildering variety, one asks perplexed: Where is the centre? Who is this man? What holds it all together?

To fill the opening concert with only string concertos was thus a brave decision, but also a sensible one. It gave an immediate impression of unity and coherence. It focused attention on the specifically musical virtues of this great polymath. And the three pieces involved encapsulated several of the concerns that do identifiably run through Berio’s diverse oeuvre.

Ritorno degli snovidenia, the Italian/Russian title translates as ’Return of the Dreams’ was composed in 1976 for Mstislav Rostropovich to perform with Paul Sacher’s Basle Chamber Orchestra. This intense, subdued meditation on a revolutionary dream besmirched and beset by the vagaries of practice but still, to Berio, immensely attractive towards the end of a century of horrors weaves its source material (three fragments from revolutionary songs) into a seamless melodic loop which functions to produce the piece’s evolving harmony. The resultant drone-based harmony and blending of orchestral colours on unison pitches audibly characterises all three works in this opening concert, and is arguably the primary weakness of Berio’s later orchestral style: a certain harmonic stasis or circularity. But the level of facture is extraordinarily and consistently high, and in each work Berio astutely saves up an acceleration of pace for the ending: in Ritorno, a striking extended passage for cello and piano (presaged near the beginning of the piece), with John Constable on captivating form, so too Anssi Karttunen, and a final, inscrutable orchestral outburst.

Berio was always fascinated by the characters and the potential of solo instruments, which he explored in a series of solo Sequenzas stretching from 1957 to 2002 (the last, XIV for cello, receives its UK premiere during “Omaggio”. Corale (1981) is one of several concertante pieces which expand and elaborate these instrumental solos: both the violin and the ensemble music here take as the starting point the alternation of two pitches, A and B, which pervades Sequenza VIII. From the interval of a whole tone comes a wonderful clarity of harmony, which is matched by a transparency of gesture throughout, including some notably repetitive moto perpetuo figuration. Interest is generated as the largely string-based ensemble echoes, parallels, or weaves around developments in the soloist’s line, here taken with panache and sensitivity by Sinfonietta principal Clio Gould.

Voci (1984) for viola and ensemble returns to the use of folk or popular material as a basis. Here, Berio’s fascination is with Sicilian folk music – songs, lullabies, ’street cries’. Rather than absorb them into a relatively abstract language, as in the cello concerto, here he makes much more thoroughgoing use of these ’found objects’, splitting the ensemble into two to create a rich and strange sonic backdrop for the soloist’s modal melodic fragments.

This piece is a favourite with many younger composers, and they were out in force tonight. Kim Kashkashian, whose wonderful recording of the work on ECM 461 808-2 is twinned with fascinating field recordings of the tonally astringent Sicilian originals, was an engaging advocate. Diego Masson, stepping in at short notice for David Robertson, directed the expanded London Sinfonietta.

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