Omaggio Berio – Ofanim & Laborintus II

Laborintus II (Homage to Dante)

Esti Kenan Ofri (voice)

Claire Booth, Sarah Leonard (sopranos) &Heather Cairncross (mezzo-soprano)

Terry Edwards (narrator)

New London Children’s Choir

London Sinfonietta Voices

Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble

London Sinfonietta

Tempo Reale

Sound Intermedia

Zsolt Nagy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 April, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Although neither of Berio’s major stage-works of the 1990s made into Omaggio, the opportunity to hear Ofanìm promised to be a highlight of the retrospective. Originally composed back in 1988, heard at the BBC’s Berio Weekend in 1990, and only reaching its definitive form in 1997, this is Berio’s most elaborate work using the Tempo Reale live electronics apparatus which – along with concurrent developments at IRCAM – is the major advance in sound transformation over the last quarter-century.

Sound spatialisation is a crucial component in Ofanìm’s physiognomy: the title itself is Hebrew for ‘wheels’ or ‘modes’, the composer pointing out how “the music … develops various modes of rotation and movement in the acoustic space”. And Hebrew is the language used in the piece’s 12 sections, with extracts from the apocalyptic pronouncements of “Ezekiel” complemented by sensuous asides from the “Song of Songs” – their expressive contrast underlying the 30-minute discourse as a whole.

With its antiphonally arranged groupings of choir, children’s voices and wind ensembles, Ofanìm makes for heady listening as – according to the textual treatment – the sound ricochets viscerally around the auditorium or remains grounded in static contemplation. Yet this divergence in auditory means is not matched by cumulative contrasts in the material. Too often Berio seems content to let the emblematic impact of the texts and respective music take the place of a sustained or meaningfuldevelopment of their actual content. Moreover, the climax of this tableaux-like succession – a lament performed by a vocalist who remains crouched in front of the conductor until arising like a pillar of smoke to assume centre-stage – is however governed by dramatic and textual considerations, pure theatrical kitsch in the context of such musical seriousness and aural sophistication.

This latter role – in all its chest-beating emoting – was vividly conveyed by Esti Kenan Ofri, and the performance impressed with its precision and attention to detail. Spirited singing from the New London Children’s Choir and strikingly effective live electronic deployment helped compensate for an overall impression which was less one of musically determined evolution than of emotively governed musical gesturing.

By contrast, Laborintus II (1965) inhabits a more overtly polemical landscape. The subtitle ‘Homage to Dante’ is significant: Edoardo Sanguineti juxtaposing extracts from the “Vita Nuova”, “Cantos of the Inferno”, and “Convivio”, in a richly allusive text considering inner emotion and creativity from the perspective of the ‘real world’, with its attendant compromises and exploitative practices. Not that there is anything narrowly political in the musical outcome, which draws a skilful line between stylistic collage and a response to the question of the artist’s responsibility to society. Less cohesive than Berio’s later Sinfonia, Laborintus II remains a potent reminder of Berio’s cultural reach at its most uninhibited: simultaneously relating and transcending the concerns of the age.

Federico Sanguineti (son of Edoardo) was unavailable to give the narrative, but Terry Edwards gave a secure and faultlessly enunciated account. The significant jazz-combo overtones were effectively ‘swung’ by members of London Sinfonietta, and the music’s often elaborate textural diversity was expertly articulated by Sound Intermedia. As with Ofanìm, Zsolt Nagy seemed fully in control of proceedings – ensuring that Berio’s music provoked by the very nature of its communicative zeal.

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