Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio – Philharmonia Orchestra/Valade – UK premiere of Stanze (20 April)

Le martyre de St Sébastien – Prelude to the Council of the False Gods
Stanze [UK premiere]
Petrushka (1947 version)

François Le Roux (baritone)

Christian Lindberg (trombone)

London Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Pierre-André Valade

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A final work by a composer of Berio’s stature is bound to be of significance – and so it proved with the UK premiere of Stanze: five settings of texts which deal with finality and ’last things’ from a thoughtful and self-contained perspective typical of this composer.

In his typically succinct programme note, Berio evokes a Larkin-esque image of the poems inhabiting separate rooms, each with its emotional portent. The sombre mood of Paul Celan’s “Tenebrae” segues into the humanist-celestial train motion of Giorgio Caproni’s “The Ceremonious Traveller’s Farewell”; then the disconnected gestures of an untitled poem by Edoardo Sanguineti, through the sardonicism of Alfred Brendel’s apostrophising of the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka (which Berio composed earlier, the setting fitting in rather awkwardly here), which leads to the calm – but far from serene – contemplation of Dan Pagis’s “The Battle”.

Musically there are few overt surprises: orchestral textures have that dark translucency, moving stealthily in chromatic layers of sound, familiar from Berio’s music this last quarter-century and more – across which allusions real and imagined come momentarily into focus. The vocal writing, low in the baritone register and proceeding in grave, declamatory phrases, is complemented by groups of male voices placed left, right and to the rear of the orchestra – commenting on, amplifying and overriding the solo line in a manner recalling earlier works. Yet if the musical language is unexpected, neither is the resourcefulness and sensitivity that Berio invests into his musical treatment. Songs, then, which are ’last’ in definition, ’serious’ in intent, and inclusive in their all-round expressive scope.

François Le Roux overcame inherent obstacles of pitching and phrasing to deliver a sustained and engrossing account, though clarity of vocal writing was frequently threatened by the orchestra and a discreet level of amplification might have been advisable. London Voices sang with conviction, and Pierre-André Valade seemed at one with the orchestra in conveying the music’s undoubted pathos.

If Stanze represents Berio at his most considered, SOLO (2001) finds him at his most animated, even playful. Unlike most of his earlier concertante works, this is not directly derived from an existing Sequenza – though the trombone repertoire set out in Sequenza V (1966) is fully in evidence. Moreover, a three-movement outline makes itself apparent – an intensifying opening section gives way to a meditative central span, then to a sometimes-acrimonious closing dialogue. Characterful too is the trombone writing – at times threatening to shout down the orchestra, elsewhere fluttering above it in the manner of a rather strange bird. All this is meat and drink to Christian Lindberg – his virtuosity matched by a robust humour, which carried all before it. Entertainment of a high order.

The concert was begun by the ceremonial strains of a brass fanfare from Debussy’s St Sébastien music (surely somewhere in Dukas’s mind when he appended a fanfare to La Péri), and concluded with Stravinsky’s Petrushka – sounding fresher and more expressive than usual in its 1947 incarnation. Known in the UK primarily as a conductor of post-war music, Valade is equally expert in that from the first half of the twentieth century. There were interpretative possibilities aplenty in this performance, qualified – inevitably – by the need to knock the piece into shape in relatively minimal rehearsal time. Yet the expressive acuity of the two ’interior’ scenes, in particular, demonstrated a flair and personality that ought to secure this conductor a re-invite outside of ’festival time’.

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