Berio Sequenzas I-XIII
Berio’s ongoing sequence of solo compositions complements his larger-scale vocal and orchestral works in various productive ways. That does not make the Sequenzas ‘miniatures’, however: one of the most recent, No. 12 for bassoon (1995), is at 18 minutes also the longest, and even the shortest (No. 1, for flute, at just over six minutes) offers a distillation which, for all its elegance, is far from lightweight.
It’s also inappropriate to call these pieces ‘monodies’, when the essence of what they offer is the image of a single voice, or line, opening out into a series of dialogues. One of the interesting things about the retrospective epigraphs for the Sequenzas provided by Edoardo Sanguineti, and printed in the booklet, is the way they respond to the teasing ambiguity of many voices in one: equally, the music is less interesting (as in No. 4 for piano, or No. 10 for trumpet) when there seems to be only one voice, and one topic for discussion.
Berio has come a long way since 1958, when No. 1 was written, yet the flexible eloquence with which he imbues some relatively ordinary avant-garde gestures in that piece is early evidence of a distinctive quality of thought which was to mature and intensify in the years ahead. Five years on, in No. 2 for harp (1963), the instrument’s conventionally genteel image is transformed into vivid confrontations between the seductive and the aggressive, and this formula is developed still more radically in No. 3 for female voice (1965). No. 4 (1966) is also highly expressionistic, concentrating on the brittle, dense textures of which the piano is capable, rather than seeking to spin a long, connected line. No. 5 for trombone (1965), by contrast, is a haunting exploration of the instrument’s ‘voice’, as well as of the voice of the player, the use of long, slow glissandos a model for the more elaborate treatment of the device in the bassoon Sequenza 30 years later.
That all the performers on these discs – most of them members of the Ensemble InterContemporain – are on top of challenging material goes without saying. They might not always stick to the letter of dynamic markings, but the spirit of the music is always vividly conveyed, and the recordings are good – possibly, as with No. 2, a little too close and resonant, but with an engagingly ‘live’ atmosphere.
Of the later Sequenzas, none is finer than the staggeringly virtuosic No. 6 for viola (1967) charting Berio’s complex response to the Paganinian romantic heritage, and No. 8 for violin (1976) where Bach replaces Paganini as model in a piece with enough of the grandeur and sense of inevitability of Bach’s great Chaconne to justify the comparison. This leaves one more anxious than ever for Berio to provide a companion work for solo cello – the only ‘mainstream’ instrument, apart from the horn, as yet without its own Sequenza.
With the short No. 7 for oboe (1967) Berio hit on the strategy of placing the instrument’s intensely volatile line against a single sustained tone (off-stage or electronic), and a comparable effect is used in No. 10. Here the trumpet occasionally plays into an open grand piano, which (with pedal and silently sustained chords) catches and transforms the resonance to create ethereal echo-effects. No. 9 from 1980 (for clarinet, and also for saxophone) is to some extent an experiment in constraint, limiting the melodic materials and developing dialogues between varied repetitions, while No. 11 (1988) for guitar wittily explores the ways in which the instrument’s own limitations can be both exploited and challenged. With No. 12’s superbly long-drawn out but never monotonous bassoon lament, and No. 13 for accordion (also 1995) revealing the instrument’s capacity for delicate and poetic, as well as brusque, even sinister utterance, it is clear that Berio’s interest in putting single instruments under the spotlight was as strong in the mid-1990s as it had been nearly 40 years before. These discs are a wonderful reminder of why Berio’s music matters, and a definitive document of a very special twentieth-century achievement.'