Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio – Sarah Leonard and Sarah Nicolls (22 April)

Petite Suite
Sequenza III
Quattro canzoni popolari
Quattro liriche di Antonio Machado
Quaderno musicale di Annalibera
Ernesto Berio
Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo?

Sarah Leonard (soprano) &
Sarah Nicolls (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 April, 2004
Venue: Italian Cultural Institute, London

Almost an interlude in the fortnight-long Omaggio festival, this recital took place in the intimate confines of the Italian Cultural Institute. “Berio: Family Album” was an appropriate subtitle as, besides music by Berio’s father, there was also music by his ’spiritual father’ – Luigi Dallapiccola, whose significance as a cultural force for good in Italian music cannot be underestimated.

And the two works featured are among the most representative of his maturity. The Quattro liriche di Antonio Machado (1948) are a distilled appendix to the opera Il Prigioniero – brief but intense songs of new beginnings and spiritual contemplation that impress with their emotional strength as well as technical mastery. Sarahs Leonard and Nicolls formed an insightful partnership, with the latter as impressive in the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera (1952). A gift for the composer’s daughter (who was in the audience this evening), these 11 miniatures abound in harmonic and canonic subtleties, and have an expressive range that ensures maximum contrast within a well-balanced sequence – qualities that Nicolls conveyed in full measure.

The Berio Family Album (1947) is a curious miscellany. Along with a four-hand waltz by grandfather Adolfo not included tonight, it consists of a setting of Silvio Novaro by Ernesto Berio – elegantly sung here – and a Petite Suite by Luciano himself. With its nods in the direction of Bartók and Ravel, these five pieces demonstrate a sure integration of influences into music that, if hardly individual, is finely crafted and evidently enjoyable to play. From the same period come the Quattro canzoni popolari: two transcriptions of the Renaissance composer Giacomo de Lentini, including a heartfelt panegyric to love, and two livelier traditional numbers that were later to do service in Folksongs.

Stylishly performed by Leonard – who made an equal, though very different impression in Sequenza III (1966), a vehicle for Cathy Berberian, which continues to entertain in its anarchic playfulness. It took its place in a sequence which – lasting just under 60 minutes overall – was as enjoyable an hour as one could hope to spend in the company of such different but rewarding composers, and two such gifted performers.

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