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C. Michael Bailey
All About Jazz, November 2006

Luciano Berio was an avant-garde Italian composer who loomed very large over the “classical” music landscape of the second half of the twentieth century. A native of Oneglia (now Borgo d'Oneglia), Berio was originally educated by his father and grandfather both of who were organists. His formal training was achieved at the Milan Conservatory under Giulio Cesare Paribeni and Giorgio Federico Ghedini where he studied piano. Berio was forced to abandon his piano studies due to a hand injury he sustained in World War II, and he instead concentrated his efforts toward composition.

In the early 1950s, Berio came to the United States and studied at Tanglewood. He later studied at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt, where he cam into contact with such musical luminaries as Mauricio Kagel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and György Ligeti. He spent the rest of his life teaching and composing in the United States and abroad.

Among the many types of compositions in which Berio excelled, his solo outings, entitled Sequenzas, are perhaps his most famous. He began the composition of the Sequenzas in 1958 with Sequenza I for flute and ended with Sequenza XIV for violoncello in 2002, completed a year prior to the composer’s death at 77. Before the release of Naxos Classical’s Sequenzas I-XVI for Solo Instuments the most complete collection was the splendid 20/21 - Berio: Sequenzas / Ensemble InterContemporain (Deutsche Grammophon, 1057788, 1999).

Naxos Classical forges ahead in its attempt to document any and all art music with the release of Sequenzas I-XVI for Solo Instruments. This is the first complete set of the Sequenzas since Berio’s death and it is very fine. But in all of its fineness, the Sequenzas are a bit hard to describe in the same way that Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space are hard to describe. The Sequenzas are among the most “free” compositions of any genera captured on record.

A single listen to these pieces is not adequate. Each instrument brings its own personality and Berio treats them as such. Berio approached his subjects from many angles. For example, perhaps the most notable of the pieces is Sequenza III for Soprano Voice. Berio composed the piece in 1965 for his former wife Cathy Berberbian, whose instrument possessed great range and depth. Berio’s composition thoroughly tests the robustness of the soprano voice with acute range and octave shifts, fractured arpeggios and breathtaking trills. Listening to the soprano piece is a jarring, bracing experience requiring a Coleridgian “suspension of disbelief,” meaning that the listener needs to put aside his or her preconception of what music is thereby broadening the artistic horizon.

On an equally virtuosic but less serious note is the Sequenza V for Solo Trombone, performed capably by Naxos regular Alain Trudel. This is an almost vaudevillian performance, with Trudel using all of the tricks in the book to make the instrument talk. The string Sequenzas (VI for Solo Viola, VIII for Solo Violin, XI for Solo Guitar and XIV for Cello) are edgy affairs with dense trilling and double-stop modulations (VI for Solo Viola), dissonant double-stops (VIII for Solo Violin), percussive Flamenco schizophrenia (XI for Solo Guitar) and anxious melancholy (XIV for Cello).

Sequenza IX for Solo Clarinet is moody, shrill, nervous while Sequenza X for Solo Trumpet is bright and exuberant quite the opposite of the less serious trombone recital. As a finite collection of music, The Sequenzas exist among the most important compositions of the twentieth century. Naxos capably captures these pieces with immediacy and intimacy, as much as the music allows. This recording would please all fans of classical and jazz avant-garde.

D. Moore
American Record Guide, October 2006

Suddenly there are three new recordings of the Berio Sequenzas. I only got two of them so far, but since the New York Times has stolen a march on us with the other complete issue on Mode, maybe I can figure out something from reading their review. The NYT doesn't include the Black Box release I have here, so between that and the old Ensemble InterContemporain album on DG, we should be able to come up with something to say.

Sequenza 1 is for flute. It alternates passages of great verve and agility with distant quiet notes. It is the shortest of all the Sequenzas by about a minute, clocking in at about six minutes. Sophie Cherrier, on DG, turns in a lively and pleasant-toned rendition. Nora Shulman on Naxos makes more of the flutter­tongued aspects of the piece; and though her tone is less centered than Cherrier's, she pulls the parts together, cutting half a minute off Cherrier's timing. Ruggieri stretches it out to half a minute longer than Cherrier, making more of the details than either of the others. Obviously, there is no one right way to play improvisatory pieces like these, but I prefer the bright sound of the DG performance and the details evident in the Black Box to the some­what impersonal reading on Naxos.

Sequenza 2 is for harp, complete with sound effects of all sorts. Berio says in the notes for the DG recording that he was trying here to dispel the notion of the harp being fit only to play "seductive glissandos". Again, the playing for DG of Frederique Cambreling strikes me as stronger and more to the point than Goodman on Naxos, whose instrument tends to bend pitches when played too strongly.

3 is an amusing tour de force for woman's voice doing all of the things it should never do. Arnold does them with great abandon and flair for Naxos, while Luisa Castellani is even more virtuosic, if somewhat less amusing. Arved Ashby in his review of the DG (July/Aug 1999) reminds us that Cathy Berberian was out­standing in this piece, but doesn't inform us where her performance may be found.

4 is an 11-minute opus for piano. Here I tend to like the Black Box recording. Orvieto makes more of the lyrical elements than either Berman or Florent Boffard, resulting in a slightly longer performance but one that falls more easily on the ear.

5 is half as long, an amusing exercise for trombone. Both readings seem excellent, but Benny Sluchin for DG makes more out of the potential for double-stops than does Naxos's Trudel.

6 is a 15-minute monster for viola. It is hard to make this one work. Dann for Naxos has trouble keeping the high pitches stable- if, indeed that is the object of this game. The Times reviewer blames Berio for writing a boring piece. DG's Christophe Desjardins manages to cut 2-1/2 minutes from Dann's timing and sounds more assured, though no happier abomt the situation. Times have changed over the years. I have an LP performance by Karen Philips that cuts it down another 30 seconds to just under 12 minutes. Her recording is a bit harsh and she has major pitch problems. Walter Trampler comes closer than anyone else to taming this monster. He manages to make it sound organized, if not totally idiomatic. The object seems partly to be to prove that the viola can play difficult double and triple stops in a high register in tremolo. Trampler is the only one who can do it without falling apart. Anne Midgette, the Times reviewer, mentions that the Mode album includes a further performance on cello. I wonder if that works better. Or at all! I don't think I'd enjoy tackling this piece.

7 puts the oboe through its paces. The pieces from this period have an interesting tendency to concentrate on different methods of playing a single note. Could Berio have been listening to Giacinto Scelsi? This one experiments with different ways of articulating, including double stops, flutter-tonguing, etc.­quite fascinating on an oboe, as it was on the trombone, not to mention the human voice. Both Naxos's Sarc and DG's Laszlo Hadady seem to be having a fine time, though I think Sarc has more fun with the double stops. Naxos adds a further performance on soprano saxophone where Wallace Halladay tries it on a single-reed instrument, opening up a new can of worms. He has a good time with the flutter-tongue passages, though I think the oboe changes of sonority are more impressive in places. On the other hand, the soprano member of the sax family has some pretty impressive high notes and a lot of personality.

Waking up the next morning to the sound of a particularly imaginative bird who was trying out every possible song he could get his throat to produce, I was forcefully reminded of these Sequenzas. No.8, for violin, is a good example of the technique. Moving from a con­centration on single notes to a latter half of amazing agility but mostly to be played in a whisper, Berio seems determined to break down walls and preconceptions. Jeanne-Marie Conquer on DG plays a bit more delicately than Wood for Naxos, but Wood gets a bit more variety from the articulations. Lazari on Black Box plays the opening with anger and annoyance and manages to imbue the entire 13-minute piece with just a little more personality than the others.

9 is another that exists in two versions, for clarinet and for alto saxophone. The clarinet is played on Black Box. Teodoro gives us the shortest reading - under 13 minutes. DG's Alan Damiens takes a little longer, but plays with a little less sonic sensitivity. I find myself judging the performance by subtlety of tone color; and those long, loud high notes towards the end get rather irritating if they aren't well integrated with the surrounding phrases. Valdepenas for Naxos does a little better in this area, extending and separating the phrases to the tune of 14 minutes. He and Teodoro have the most solid tonal character. Between the two sax readings Christian Wirth for DG gets my vote: his tone is better controlled than Halladay's for Naxos and he plays some really impressive double-stops. Yes, on a saxophone! I told you the demands were remarkable.

Sequenza 10 is for trumpet and piano reso­nance. What does that mean? You may well ask. Berio has nothing to say about it, but he describes the piece as the most "laborious" of all the Sequenzas. Naxos explains that the pianist keeps the loud pedal depressed all the time, thereby giving the trumpet some extra resonance. One can detect this if one listens closely, since there are a lot of short batted notes with silences afterwards. Few's Naxos performance is three minutes longer than Gabriele Cassone's for DG. Cassone has the richer and more interesting sound, though the resonance is perhaps a little more marked on the Naxos. I prefer the DG so far, particularly since the faster tempo helps the resonance reflect some chordal effects, but I wonder what the Mode recording is like?

11 is a wild piece for guitar. Eliot Fisk for DG plays it in a little over 15 minutes in a lively Spanish-sounding style. Villegas adds over a minute to that for Naxos. He gives less of a Spanish flavor to the music, somewhat to my surprise, but is a bit more precise in his articulation of the phrases. Fisk holds my attention better.

12 is for bassoon. Here Munday on Naxos is persuaded into the stratosphere, wailing in the air most sadly, sliding about slowly and lugubriously. Pascal Gallois on DG controls his slither much more precisely, making more of the odd effects Berio places in his way. He also takes a good two minutes longer to manage the obstacles, making this the longest performance of any of the Sequenzas at 18-1/2 minutes! It isn't boring, though.

13 is a short one for accordion, subtitled Chanson. It is nice to hear some sustained harmony again after so many mostly monophonic pieces. Both performances seem fine to me, though DG's Teodora Anzellotti has perhaps a slight edge in articulation.

At this point the DG set ends; it was produced before Berio wrote his last Sequenza. But if that set attracts you (I find it more exciting than the Naxos), there is always the Black Box disc that includes the cello Sequenza 14. This is a rough one on the instrument, full of knocking on wood and Bartok pizzicatos. Adkins (Naxos) plays it in 13 minutes while Teodoro (Black Box) cuts it down to 11-1/2. They are both good, though the sound effects are perhaps more impressive on the Naxos recording.

The Black Box contains several short pieces. First come two dissonant but attractive pieces for violin and piano, written in 1951. Then comes a curious and lovely Canon for flute, viola, cello, and basque drum, giving the latter part of the piece a castanet background. Then a short Recitative for cello solo, and finally a Lied for clarinet solo. According to the Times review, the four-disc Mode album con· tains not only the alternate scorings of the Sequenzas but Gesti for recorder and Psy for double bass. Also, two of the performances are by the dedicatees of the music. And as a final attraction, the verses written to introduce each of the pieces by Edoardo Sanguinetti are read before each performance (in what language, we are not informed). Of course, these verses are supplied in the notes to the DG album, and that also sports notes by the composer himself, so it's swings and roundabouts as usual. The combination of DG and the Black Box are the best bet, I think-but I haven't yet heard the Mode album.

Jed Distler, August 2006

Between 1958 and 2002 Luciano Berio completed his 14 solo Sequenzas, a series of pieces that push not only each instrument's technical, textural, and expressive possibilities, but also those of the performer. Each work demands the utmost in technique, musicianship, tonal resources, theatricality, and stamina. Small wonder that the Sequenzas loom large in the active contemporary repertoire, while conservatories and competitions often assign them as test pieces. In 1998 Deutsche Grammophon brought out a three-disc set containing stunning interpretations of all 13 extant Sequenzas, plus the alto saxophone transcription of Sequenza IX for clarinet. Now Naxos enters the Sequenza playing field with equally world-class performances of the cycle, including the Cello Sequenza (No. XIV) written in 2002 (the year before Berio's death) plus the soprano saxophone version of the Oboe Sequenza (No. VII).

It might be helpful to describe some of the ways in which the DG and Naxos performances differ. In Sequenza XII for Bassoon, Pascal Gallois' rapid leaps and piercing multiphonics convey a sharper impact through DG's close microphone placement. By contrast, Naxos' more distantly miked Ken Munday sounds relatively less incisive yet fuller bodied in longer, sustained passages. DG's violist Christophe Desjardins plays Sequenza VI's cyclonic opening chordal section with lacerating intensity, whereas Naxos' Steven Dunn's slightly slower tempo allows the pitches and cross rhythms a little more room to breathe.

Naxos' Jaspar Wood does a fine job with Sequenza VIII, but DG's Jeanne-Marie Conquer's double stops boast more variety and tonal differentiation. Regarding Sequenza II, it's a toss-up between Frédérique Cambreling's pronounced dynamic contrasts (DG) and Erica Goodman's greater clarity in the scurrying, ethereal passages (Naxos). While Naxos' Tony Arnold's playful soprano makes the most of Sequenza III's madcap mood shifts, DG's Luisa Castellani's suppler voice employs wider register extremes (she was Berio's preferred singer in later years).

Had pianist Boris Berman's extraordinary marksmanship in Sequenza IV been captured in more colorful sonic splendor, his interpretation easily would hold its own next to Florent Boffard's elegant insouciance. In Sequenza X for C Trumpet Berio uses piano resonance to create continuity between phrases. On DG, Gabriele Cassone's fat, flügelhorn-like sonority and immaculate repeated-note technique have no peer, yet I like the jazziness with which Naxos' Guy Few leans into the beginnings of certain phrases. In all, this release stands as a viable alternative to the DG set, if not necessarily a replacement.

Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, June 2006

Berio’s Sequenzas were written over a rather long period, actually some thirty-four years - most of his long composing life. So, they give a fair survey of his compositional progress and of his stylistic evolution.

Sequenza I for solo flute, composed for the celebrated flautist and staunch champion of modern music Severino Gazzelloni, is fairly traditional in its aims and means, and probably one of Berio’s most classically conceived mature works. In many respects, it belongs to a series of works for monodic instruments, such as flute, viola, viola and cello, in which the composers attempt some sort of polyphony. One thinks of Hindemith’s sonatas for solo viola, Bartók’s masterly Sonata for Solo Violin, Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello or Alwyn’s Divertimento for Solo Flute. The music is awfully demanding, but still dispenses with modern playing techniques, such as multiphonics.

In Sequenza II for solo harp (1963), Berio clearly moves some steps further in liberating the instrument of its classical and Impressionistic clichés, and in trying-out some new playing methods, such as knocks on the wood or playing near the keys; but, most significantly, Berio never writes against the nature of the instrument (this is a common characteristic to all the works in the Sequenza series).

Sequenza III for solo female voice (1966) belongs to a number of works from that same period, such as Circles (1960), Epiphanie (1959/61, rev. 1965) and Laborintus II (1965), in which Berio sets various texts in a completely radical way, by splitting words and phrases into some sort of “word constellations” in which the words’ actual meaning is deliberately by-passed. Sequenza III was written for Cathy Berberian (who else?) exploiting her tremendous vocal range and, her sometimes histrionic sound delivery: whispers, shouts, shrieks, plain singing, breathing noises and the like. The piece is an impressive showcase for vocalist, but I for one have never been able to warm to it wholeheartedly. However, I must say that Tony Arnold’s aplomb is simply stunning.

In total contrast, Sequenza IV for piano (1966) is a quite accessible piece of music exploring the instrument’s timbres and textures, and constantly opposing (confronting?) chordal and linear versions of the same basic idea. However, one clearly senses that Berio has now moved some way from the fairly traditional sound-world of Sequenza I and is now close to that of, say, Boulez and his contemporaries.

Sequenza V for solo trombone (1965) does not appeal much to me, in much the same way as Sequenza III and for the same reasons (there is too little music in these pieces for my taste). However, I saw a documentary on Berio some time ago, in which he was seen rehearsing the piece with a young trombone player, and explaining that the piece is some sort of gag, incidentally inspired by the once famous clown “Grock”. I must say that this helped me to consider the piece in another perspective, which does not mean that I find it one of the finest of the set.

Sequenza VI for solo viola (1967), written for Serge Collot, is – as far as I am concerned – one of the finest of the whole series. The music is of course devilishly difficult and demanding, but eventually displays a formidable expressive strength, that Berio later developed in Chemins II (viola and ensemble – 1967) and Chemins III (viola and orchestra – 1968). The cellist Rohan de Saram also arranged it for solo cello, but this version has not been included in this set.

Sequenza VII for solo oboe (1969), written for Heinz Holliger, and in many respects quite comparable to its predecessor, also received an expanded reworking (Chemins IV – 1975); as did Sequenza VIII for solo violin (1976), later “recycled” as Corale su Sequenza VIII (violin, 2 horns and strings – 1981). Incidentally, Sequenza VII exists in an alternative version made in 1995, Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone included here.

Sequenza IXa for solo clarinet (1980), too, is not unlike its predecessors, although there is less of the nervously repeated notes heard in Sequenza VI or Sequenza VIII, and more emphasis on melodic material constantly modified and metamorphosed throughout the piece. There also exists an alternative version for alto saxophone (IXb) made the following year and included here too.

Sequenza X for trumpet in C and piano resonance (1984) is thus the only work of the series that calls for some “accompaniment”. “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”. Sorry for such a long quote, but Richard Whitehouse’s words aptly sum-up what is on display in this work, although I must admit that I did not really notice these “myriad harmonic overtones”, which did not deter me from enjoying the music.

Sequenza XI for guitar (1987/8), written for Eliot Fisk, is a splendid piece of music in its own right, and one that should feature highly in any guitarist’s repertoire. Flamenco tradition rubs shoulders with the classical tradition in a remarkably inventive way.

When I first heard Sequenza XII for bassoon (1995) some time ago during an Ars Musica festival in Brussels, I found that the piece, for all its merits and qualities, was just a bit too long for its own good. The very fine reading heard here does not much to change my first impression, although this is another inventive and fiendishly difficult piece designed to explore and expand the expressive range of the instrument.

The subtitle of Sequenza XIII for accordion (“Chanson”) clearly emphasises the predominantly lyrical character of the music. A most welcome novelty indeed.

Sequenza XIV for solo cello (2002) was written for Rohan de Saram. The music is – once again – strongly expressive, although it includes some percussive effects on the body of the instrument inspired, so we are told, by the Kandyan drum from Sri Lanka. It splendidly rounds-off a thirty-four year musical Odyssey that will remain as one of the peaks of 20th century instrumental music.

Naxos and all these players are to be wholeheartedly congratulated for this splendid achievement. The only rival (on DG 475 038-2), which I have not heard, is performed by members of Ensemble InterContemporain; but I found these readings carefully prepared, excellently played and well recorded. In fact, Naxos have the field to themselves since the DG set does not include Sequenza XIV (cello) and includes only one alternative version: IXb (alto saxophone). Add the typical Naxos bargain price, and you get the most attractive offer so far. Self-commending and my bargain of the month.

Thomas Abbott
June 2006

Finally! An affordable recording of the complete Sequenzas of Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003). The only previous recording of this landmark set of contemporary works was released on Deustche Grammophone in their 20/21 Series. However, that series did not include Sequenza XIV (2002) for cello, which had not yet been written. This new set from Naxos, using primarily Canadian performers, is thus the first recording of the complete set – including the alternate transcriptions for saxophone. Performances are strong and have the virtuosity required for these significant and well-known works. Devotees of Berio will want both sets (since many of the performers in the DG set are those for whom the works were originally written or were Berio’s chosen interpreters), but for any listener who wants an introduction to these works, or a chance to get the whole set in one place, there is no better opportunity than this affordable 3-disc set from Naxos.

Christopher DeLaurenti
The Score, June 2006

"For you I have multiplied my voices, my vocabulary, my vowels..." Although Italian author Edoardo Sanguineti wrote that dedicatory line for Sequenza VIII, it aptly describes all of the Sequenzas, an astounding series of works for solo instruments written between 1958 and 2002 by Luciano Berio. The Sequenzas reveal unthinkably new timbres, codify new instrumental techniques, and push performers to terrifying heights (as well as speeds) of virtuosity. Monophonic (one-note-at-a-time) instruments like the flute and the bassoon become a miniaturized orchestra of quiet murmurs, clicks, wraithlike chords, and quasi-electronic tones.

Two new recordings, Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV (Naxos) and Berio: Sequenzas & Solo Works (Mode), collect the complete Sequenzas and offer a superb, if not superior, alternative to the pricey 1998 set on Deutsche Grammophon, which lacks the final Sequenza XIV composed in 2002. A detailed comparison of all three sets could consume a doctoral thesis; briefly, the Naxos and Mode discs contain performances ranging from really good to great. The budget-priced Naxos release has no frills, short liner notes, and, excepting soprano Tony Arnold, boasts few "name" performers. Mode enlisted several new music all-stars—Irvine Arditti, Carol Robinson, Stuart Dempster—and added a fourth disc of solo works. You can't go wrong with either set. Essential.

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2:18:35 PM, 1 May 2016
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