Omaggio Berio – Sinfonia

Ekphrasis (Continuo II)
Piano Sonata
Contrapunctus XIX for small orchestra from Bach’s art of Fugue

Andrea Lucchesini (piano)

Synergy Vocals

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

One of the most valuable aspects of a retrospective centring on Luciano Berio is the chance it affords to ‘catch up’ on a composer who, while at the forefront of new music during the 1960s and ’70s, may have been overlooked – or at least taken for granted – in recent years. Omaggio has not entirely fulfilled its potential in this respect – there having been no performances of either of the major stage-works that Berio completed during the 1990s – but concerts such as this one at least made it possible to draw connections between works past and present.

One such aspect was the extent to which Berio’s orchestral sound has remained consistent over more than three decades. Composed in 1996, Ekphrasis is subtitled ‘Continuo II’ and is – to quote the composer – “a reserved and reflective commentary” on Continuo from 1990. Ekphrasis is both more elaborate in texture and more diffuse in impact: everything is held in place by components fulfilling the functions of pedal point and harmonic focus, but neither the foreground texture nor the melodic line arising out of it has a distinctiveness sufficient to define the piece on its own terms. Nor does the platform layout – woodwinds at front-left and brass raised behind, leaving violins ‘sandwiched’ in the middle-ground – underpin the musical evolution as tellingly as in the earlier work. Jukka-Pekka Saraste obtained a decent response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but the piece itself fell too far on the ‘rerun’ side of commentary for its own good.

Perhaps a change of emphasis was necessary? Composed in 2001, the Piano Sonata is Berio’s only large-scale work for the instrument, and one in which his concern for textural contrast in tandem with harmonic continuity is given impetus through the reductive nature of the medium. Although the composer spoke of a dialogue proceeding independently of its realisation, the work feels inherently pianistic in sonority and musical syntax such as to sustain interest on its own terms. Played with insight and commendable lightness of touch by Andrea Lucchesini, it is a significant addition to the relatively uncrowded genre that is the contemporary piano sonata.

It made a more favourable impression than Berio’s transcription of the uncompleted ‘Contrapunctus XIX’ from Bach’s Art of Fugue: part of a Millennial project in which the whole cycle was arranged for small orchestra by different composers. Translucently expressive it no doubt was, but rendered here with an approximation suggesting it had been rehearsed for no longer than the eight minutes it took to play.

And what of Sinfonia – Berio’s most (in)famous original work and – for reasons musical and extra-musical, the most durable in his lifetime? For many reasons (not least those adumbrated by David Osmond-Smith in his perspicacious note), this was always much more than a chic 1960s’ collage – and is the more so 35 years after reaching its definitive, five-movement form. Saraste directed with his customary unperturbed manner, failing only in the second movement – where the climactic emergence of ‘Martin Luther King’ in sound had precious little intensity. The third movement was strikingly realised: the myriad layers of quotation and allusion precisely co-ordinated with the formal ground-plan of the scherzo from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, and the members of Synergy Vocals by turns ingratiating and hectoring in their commentary. A pity Saraste did not maintain direct continuity with the final two movements – the fourth a restive interlude after the all-round linguistic storm, the fifth mapping elements from the preceding three onto the outline of the first movement: thereby squaring a circle that, by dint of the open-ended nature of the material it fails to enclose, could never hope to remain unbroken.

It would be all too easy to assert that Sinfonia raises issues that Berio’s later music does not so much avoid as conceptualise out of existence. Yet the aural – and audible – continuity between this and subsequent works suggests these issues were channelled in subtly different directions. Hopefully enough of his legacy will remain accessible in performance so those directions are made manifest over time. And if any subsequent Berio retrospective can mount a performance of either of those late and likely defining stage-works (Outis and Cronaca del Luogo), so much the better.

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