, April 2011
Newton Classics is a Dutch-based record company founded in 2009. The label specialise in searching the back catalogue of the major record companies for well regarded recordings that have not been available for over a decade. Optimistically Newton plan to assemble a catalogue of some 1500 titles. Commencing in 2012/13 they aim to include a number of brand new recordings.
Italian-born Luciano Berio was one of the most prominent post-war European progressive composers. A contemporary of Cage, Stockhausen and Boulez this group of composers was at the cutting edge of the exploration of original music frontiers including the use of electronics. An imaginative designer of unconventional sounds Berio composed a large number of works covering several genres ranging from miniature solo instrumental to scores requiring a large orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus to working with electronic music.
Berio was branded with that rather off-putting moniker of a ‘1960s avant-garde composer’; although it’s a fitting description. Berio’s music deserves a broader circulation. His fascinating music rarely disappoints me, although its accessibility is dependent on a reasonable degree of concentration from the listener and a propensity to keep an open mind. I believe Berio’s striking music is heard to its maximum effect at a live concert. There the music can be seen being performed which increases the theatrical effect and in the confines of the concert hall it should prove easier to give the music the full attention that it needs.
Pierre Boulez and Berio were the featured composers at the musikfest berlin 10. I reported on three of the concerts at the Berlin Philharmonie that had programmed Berio’s music:
a) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons with the German premiere of: Quatre dédicaces for orchestra: Fanfara (1982); Entrata (1980); Festum (1989); Encore (1978; rev. 1981).
b) London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski giving the German premier of Stanze for baritone, 3 male choirs and orchestra (2003).
c) London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding with Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano); Synergy Vocals and Simon Stockhausen (sound director) playing Folk Songs for mezzo soprano and seven instruments (1964) and Sinfonia for 8 vocals and orchestra in 5 movements (1968/69).
These Berio performances reissued by the Newton label were recorded in April 1969 in New York City. I remember reading of their release on the Philips Modern Music series. At the time of the recordings the composer was a teacher at the Juilliard School in NYC. There he founded the Juilliard Ensemblewho became renowned as specialists in performing contemporary music.
The opening score on the disc is Différences for flute, clarinet, harp, viola, cello and magnetic tape from 1958/59; a product of Berio’s early thirties. Contemporary music specialist Pierre Boulez conducted the premiere in Paris. Lasting almost fifteen minutes in performance Différences comes across as a successful attempt to combine traditional instruments played live with electronic music on magnetic tape. The members of the Juilliard Ensemble are impeccable performers in this knotty and forceful music.
Berio composed his series of Sequenzas I-XIV for solo instruments over a forty-year period commencing in 1958 with Sequenza I for flute. The 14 Sequenzas encompass the majority of Berio’s creative life and feature many of the standard solo instruments together with the female voice. The two Sequenzas contained here Sequenza III for female voice (1965/6) performed by Cathy Berberian and Sequenza VII for oboe (1969) played by soloist Heinz Holliger are extreme tests of the virtuosity of the performers. The Sequenzas employ a variety of unconventional techniques to produce unusual sound effects, sometimes exploring theatrical possibilities and create moods that vary from the hauntingly alluring to the aggressively hostile. In Sequenza VII there is a fluctuating electronic tone underneath the oboe line.
The earliest work on this disc is the short Due pezzi for violin and piano. First performed at the Tanglewood Festival in 1952 these pieces number amongst Berio’s most accessible scores. Calmo - Mosso with its constantly singing violin line is mainly meditative with a stormy central passage. By contrast the buoyant and punchy second piece Quasi allegro alla Marcia employs the percussive effects of the piano to considerable effect set against the lyrical violin part.
Berio’s score Chamber Music for female voice, clarinet, harp and cello is designed in three movements. These fascinating and impressive settings from James Joyce’s collection of poetry titled Chamber Music was intended specifically for the voice of Cathy Berberian who was at that time married to Berio. Following closed on the heels of his studies in 1952 at Tanglewood with Luigi Dallapiccola, Berio uses aspects of twelve-tone techniques in the score. In Chamber Music the sea and a sense of solitude are compelling and recurrent themes. The first title Strings in the Earth and Air is a fascinating blend of shifting colourful sounds that highlight Berberian’s striking voice. Sandwiched between movements of extremes of pitch Monotone, as the title suggests, keeps for the majority of the time on a single note. It is not difficult to imagine a solitary seabird floating freely on thermal. I was struck by the rather exotic sounds produced by the clarinet, harp and cello. Towards the start of the third title Winds of May I was reminded of Edith Sitwell reciting Walton’s Façade over a prominent and excitable dancing clarinet. The music becomes more frenzied at 0:33 with the words given a gustier treatment. From 1:05 the remainder of the piece dispenses with the voice and becomes noticeably calmer.
…the essay by Arnold Whittall is interesting and informative. The forty year old sound presented no problems being clear and extremely well balanced. I cannot find words to describe the performances on this disc other than impeccable and extremely impressive. The composer was himself in attendance at the New York recording sessions.