The past gains perspective in Berio's Sequenzas.
A week after the multifaceted Italian composer Luciano Berio died in May 2003, his longtime friend Pierre Boulez led a concert at the Ojai Festival in idyllic, rural Ojai, California. Boulez announced they would play Berio’s O King, for five musicians and mezzo soprano, as a tribute. But since a mezzo couldn’t be found on such short notice, a trumpeter, with muted trumpet, covered the mezzo’s part. Since Berio had spent much of his life reimagining the possibilities of solo instruments and voices, the memorial carried more weight, perhaps, than if Boulez and the musicians had simply played the piece straight.
Berio’s Sequenzas (Sequences)— written from 1965 to 2002—are the most obvious fruits of his curiosity. With one written for each orchestral instrument, plus a handful more for a woman’s voice, piano, accordion and guitar, they show his love of virtuosity and the excitement that arises when performers are asked to find the extremes of their abilities. Berio wrote in the liner notes to the first complete recording of the Sequenzas (for Deutsche Grammophon) that he demanded of performers “that they function at the highest level of both technical and intellectual virtuosity.” Ignoring empty-headed technical brilliance, he wanted musicians who knew their instruments’ history and could use them “as [a] means of research and expression.” Instrument is, after all, another word for tool.
With complete sets newly available on the budget-line Naxos label (three discs) and new-music label Mode (four), it’s finally possible to hear new interpretations of these small masterpieces. The Sequenzas also help introduce listeners to Berio’s styles. The first, for flute, has an unbridled roughness in places, along with an Italianate lyricism. The harp and piano Sequenzas also date from the mid 1960s and follow similar lines, balancing violence and expansiveness.
The stylistic development gets clearer as the Sequenzas progress. The “research” mentioned earlier is etched into Sequenza III, for female voice, and Sequenza V, for trombone. Berio broke down words into their smallest parts, so that they become pure sound. (Sound could be “sssss—owwww—nnnnd,” with any of those combinations repeated.) Along with a vast vocabulary of mouth clicks, gasps and finger snaps, the woman singing turns an abstract poem by Markus Kutter into an interior opera.
The trombonist obsesses over a single phrase—Why?—as he plays and sings simultaneously. Swooping around the trombone’s wide range, with glissandi and comically low guttural noises, another private drama is enacted. It sounds like clowning around and, indeed, a clown was Berio’s inspiration for the absurd scene the performer makes.
Berio began a deep relationship with folk music in the 1970s, and that development makes its stamp on Sequenza XI, for guitar, and Sequenza XIII, for accordion. The flamenco and tango associations of those instruments aren’t set aside by Berio; they’re an integral way for performers to approach his works. They can’t forget history, and they can’t escape it, either.
Like many 20th-century composers, Berio liked to revisit his works and see what he could draw from them. Many of the Sequenzas, like those for violin and viola, were turned into ensemble works titled Chemins (Paths). Other Sequenzas were arranged for other instruments. Just as Berio could mine the past for ideas, so too could his own ideas be recycled to make something new.
Comparing the versions shows how differently these works can be approached: Flutist Paula Robison, on the Mode label, attacks the opening of Sequenza I and draws out the longer phrases, while her Naxos counterpart, Nora Shulman, doesn’t go so far over the top. Soprano Tony Arnold (a frequent presence in Chicago) gives a bracing account of Sequenza III on Naxos with awesomely precise diction; Mode’s Isabelle Ganz is more unhinged. Trombonist Stuart Dempster’s Sequenza V on Mode is antically definitive, while Alain Trudel, on Naxos, is pretty funny himself.
But pianist Aki Takahashi, who stuns with a breathtaking performance of Sequenza IV, and William Forman’s muscular heroics in Sequenza X for trumpet and piano resonance tip the balance in favor of Mode. Stefano Scodanibbio’s Sequenza XIVb for bass, and an entire disc of other Berio works for solo instruments are only available on Mode, as well. But simply having a choice among multiple versions of these valuable works is a victory.