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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Epifanie (1965) [29:23]¹
Coro (1976) [47:26]²
Cathy Berberian (mezzo)
ORF-Chor, ORF-Symphonieorchester/Leif Segerstam
recorded Salzburg Festspiele, 18 August 1974¹, 8 August 1977². DDD
ORFEO C 626 041 B [77:12]

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Berio’s music may sound nothing like that of Mahler or Schumann yet in many ways, he, too, is one of the great composers for voice. A shocking thought perhaps, but Berio’s modernism is fundamentally lyrical. His instinct for language is intuitive; he understands voice as an instrument for communication. Moreover, he takes the idea of "song" into new dimensions, deconstructing the connection between sound and language. The result may stretch the form to almost unrecognizable limits, but Berio is responding, as his predecessors did, to communication in sound and word. Significantly, he was inspired by writers who took literary form to new levels. Proust and Joyce stretch the idea of prose. No longer is it a mere narrative of events. Instead it aims to capture the intensity of moments lived. For Joyce, conventions like grammar and syntax dissolved in the service of his attempt to convey the immediacy of experience. For Berio, conventions of voice setting are transformed to recreate a new nexus between speech and music.

Epifanie is thus an epiphany of sorts in modern vocal writing. The opening section is the longest, setting out what appear to be purely abstract musical figures, murmurs, sudden clashes of percussion, staccato notes scurrying across the "page" of perception. Then quietly, the voice enters. Proust’s text is opaque – he sees three trees, but what is he looking at? Berio’s setting of the vocal line reflects the circular logic of the text. How fortunate he was to have a partner like Berberian who could shape the phrases to his idiosyncratic needs. No one has ever, to my knowledge mastered his distinctive melismas as she has. Towards the end, she recites, as in spoken language. It’s a contrast to the musical shaping of the earlier music, yet it also bridges a return to the orchestral section that follows. Yet the music itself reflects speech – sudden outbursts and moments of quietness, the scurrying single notes like scraps of conversation. The Stück für Orchester mit gesprochenen Einwürfen is a fascinating interplay; disjointed interjections of speech over long expressive lines in the music.

Joyce’s text is an internal monologue, without punctuation, and does not lend itself to vocal expression. Brilliantly, Berio’s setting makes singing possible, breaking the words into passages, like music, yet quite bypassing the intonations of normal speech. The result is surreal reverie – the spirit of Joyce’s writing. In contrast, Berberian recites lines by Sanguineti and Claude Simon in a fairly conventional if heightened manner. It is the orchestra now that provides densely textured adventures in sound, sharp dramatic crescendi which still retain the cadence of the voice. Berio pulls voice and music together in a final, glorious outburst, where Berberian powerfully enunciates and alternately sings Brecht’s passionate lines about the power of words and silence.

Coro shows another aspect of Berio’s vocal writing. It’s a much bigger piece, scored for forty voices and forty instruments. It takes the writings of Pablo Neruda, interleaving them with material from various third world cultures, Sioux, Polynesian, Gabon, Zuni and also Berio’s own, native Venetian, although all are performed in German. Berio loved the energy and rawness of traditional music, and incorporated it into his own without patronizing or prettifying. For him, it is the life force expressed in these folk forms that counts, not the externals. Together, the effect is of collage, the coming together of many voices representing a world view beyond the western European. The music textures vary too – moments of massive sonority with passages of delicate simplicity. The voices and players are not employed en masse, but in smaller units, a voice paired with an instrument, interacting with other units to create a multi-layered whole. This piece is also available in a 1980 recording with Berio himself as conductor, and that is the version to go for. However, the present version is perhaps the earliest, being performed at Salzburg, a mere year after its composition.

Epifanie is this recording’s great selling point – Berberian is unsurpassable and Segerstam conducts with sensitivity. As with all the Orfeo Salzburger Festspiele series, the booklet is prepared on the assumption that anyone choosing these recordings must know the music well enough to specifically seek a Salzburg performance; in other words the booklets are no-frills affairs, with incomplete texts. But for a live Epifanie as good as this one, that is a small price to pay. .

Anne Ozorio

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