About this Recording
8.557661-63 - BERIO, L.: Sequenzas I-XIV (Shulman, Goodman, Arnold, B. Berman, Trudel, Dann, Sarc, Wood, Valdepenas, Few, Sainz Villegas, Munday, Petric, Adkins)
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Luciano Berio (1925-2003)
Sequenzas I-XIV


Although he left an extended and varied output, including five major stage-works, several shorter dramatic pieces, a number of significant choral and orchestral works (not least the famous Sinfonia of 1968), and a sizeable body of instrumental and vocal pieces, the music of Luciano Berio is encapsulated in the Sequenza series running through 34 years of his creativity. Not only have many of them set standards for performance prowess and stamina, each embodies a redefining of the technical limits of the instrument, and through this, the establishing of an expressive profile that draws on its past evolution while facilitating its future development. Virtuosic yet communicative, the Sequenzas are a touchstone for the dialogue between performer and listener.

In 1994, Berio invited the author Edoardo Sanguineti to pen epigraphs for each of the (then twelve) Sequenzas. These verses, which can be recited by the musician or read by the listener prior to performance, are not intended either as an explanation or illustration of content: rather, they aim to focus the listener's mind on the music to be heard.

Sequenza I, written in 1958 for the flautist Severino Gazzelloni, was a radical departure in seeking a polyphonic (multi-voice) discourse for what, since the Baroque era, had been a monodic (single voice) instrument. The harmony thus evolves in tandem with the melodic line, deploying a wide range of techniques to make the writing as varied as possible, without undermining its graceful and capricious nature.

Sequenza II, written in 1963 for the harpist Francis Pierre, is more interventionist in the way it aims to get away from the decorative manner familiar from the 19th-century musical Impressionists. Such a treatment makes of the instrument an orchestra in itself, ranging from bare wisps of sound to densely superimposed layers that suggest a spatial depth largely unexplored in the repertoire until then.

Sequenza III, written in 1966 for the vocalist Cathy Berberian, is one of several works in which Berio sought a new relationship between the text and its 'setting' by destroying it semantically so as to recreate it musically. Markus Kutter's text is a sequence of gestures adding up to an abstract music theatre; one outlining an imaginary scenario where the narrative is the relationship of the performer to her voice.

Sequenza IV, written in 1966 for the pianist Jocy de Corvalho, unfolds as a series of contrasts between diverse timbres and textures; a dialogue between chordal (harmonic) and linear (melodic) versions of the same idea; and a simultaneous development of material heard as sound on the keyboard and as resonance from the sustaining pedal. The result is music that integrates the piano's capabilities to striking effect.

Sequenza V, written in 1965 for the trombonist Stuart Dempster, draws instrument and performer into a symbiosis where the former becomes 'vocalised' and the latter becomes 'instrumentalised'. It was inspired by Berio's memory of the clown 'Grock', his elaborate routines often culminating with 'warum' (why) addressed directly to the audience. Here, that word is made the expressive linch-pin of the whole piece.

Sequenza VI, written in 1967 for the violist Serge Collot, requires a Paganinian technique to develop and transform what is essentially the same harmonic sequence. Out of the increasingly elaborate writing emerges what could be the only culmination: an austere melody line, seemingly unrelated to the work's content, that both distills its musical essence and suggests a radically different way of proceeding.

Sequenza VII[a], written in 1969 for the oboist Heinz Holliger, is again a piece where contrast is the key to its evolution. Thus certain notes, intervals and registers are emphasized to the virtual exclusion of all others, while the writing is itself given tonal context by the note B played offstage by 'any other instrument'. The piece is also notable for discreetly evoking the historical 'background' of the instrument.

Sequenza VIIb, arranged in 1995 for Claude Delangle, gives the original music added zest and impact heard in the guise of soprano saxophone, the offstage B continuing to be a presence as before.

Sequenza VIII, written in 1976 for violinist Carlo Chiarappa, is both a homage to the instrument's technical potential, its content deriving essentially from the notes A and B, and also, in that its form is akin to a chaconne (variations over a repeated melodic or rhythmic idea in the bass), to the composer whose Sonatas and Partitas laid the foundation for all subsequent violin music, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Sequenza IXa, written in 1980 for the clarinettist Michel Arrignon, takes a melody line and subjects it to a wide range of musical transformation. Formally the piece is governed by two separate pitch sequences: that of seven notes is largely fixed in the same register; whereas that of five notes moves between registers with relative freedom. Linear progress is thus enriched by the mere implication of musical space.

Sequenza IXb, arranged in 1981 for Claude Delangle, makes the cool melodic contours that are the basis of the original piece seem more insinuating, even jazzy, heard in the incarnation for alto saxophone.

Sequenza X, written in 1984 for the trumpeter Thomas Stevens, is unusual in that it avoids extending the instrument's accepted technical limits. The designation "for trumpet in C and piano resonance" is significant: the piano keeps its sustaining pedal, with differing notes, depressed throughout the piece, ensuring the stark trumpet tone is 'cushioned' by myriad harmonic overtones, so opening-out its expressive range.

Sequenza XI, written in 1988 for the guitarist Eliot Fisk, is pervaded by a double layer of contrast. Harmonically it contrasts the guitar's own tuning with one created by the composer; technically it contrasts performing gestures of the flamenco tradition with those of classical practice. This dialogue between differing harmonic and historical levels is detectable throughout a complex but powerfully defined discourse.

Sequenza XII, written in 1995 for the bassoonist Pascal Gallois, takes the instrument's wide compass as representing very different, but equally valid facets of its personality. As a 'meditation' on this technical and expressive range, the piece moves between registers via different tempi and ways of articulation: a portrait emerging of the bassoon which does justice to its soulful as much as its humorous capabilities.

Sequenza XIII, written in 1995 for the accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti, has the subtitle 'Chanson', indicating the unforced, spontaneous nature of music that draws on, but is not beholden to, the accordion's roots in folk and popular culture, combining these with the composer's own perspective on an instrument still in its early stages of evolution. For all its textural density the piece retains a lyrical character throughout.

Sequenza XIV, written in 2002 for the cellist Rohan de Saram, makes an eventful end to the series. Fascinated by the Kandyan drum from Sri Lanka, Berio features percussive effects on the body of the instrument that blend naturally with pizzicato chords, the combination alternating with melodic bowed sections. A characterful mastery emerges that sustains the piece through to its understated yet questioning close.

Richard Whitehouse

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