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Luciano BERIO (1925 – 2003)
Sequenzas I – XIV

Nora Shulman (flute); Erica Goodman (harp); Tony Arnold (soprano); Boris Berman (piano); Alain Trudel (trombone); Steven Dann (viola); Matej Šarc (oboe); Jasper Wood (violin); Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet); Guy Few (trumpet); Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar); Ken Munday (bassoon); Joseph Petric (accordion); Darrett Adkins (cello); Wallace Halladay (saxophones)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, 1998-2004
NAXOS 8.557661-63 [3 CDs: 63:02 + 60:09 + 58:48]

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.
Hubert Culot


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