Jul/Aug 2004

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Vehement Virtuosity or Solitary Introspection

Luciano Berio. Sequenzas.
Sophie Cherrier, flute.
Frederique Camerling, harp.
Luisa Castellani, soprano.
Florent Bofford, piano.
Benny Sluchen, trombone.
Chistophe Besjardins, viola
Laszlo Hadady, oboe.
Jeanne-Marie Conquer, violin.
Allain Damiens, clarinet.
Gabriele Cassne. Trumpet.
Eliot Fisk, guitar.
Pascal Gallois, bassoon.
Teodoro Anzellotti, accordion.
Christian Wirth, also saxophone.
Deutsche Grammophon, 457 038-2. Hamburg, 1998...


From Sequenza I for Flute in 1958 to Sequenza XIII for Accordion "Chanson" in the mid-1990s (around five years before Berio's death), the fourteen solo pieces performed on this three disc set attest to one of the more remarkable musical projects of the second half of the 20th century. (There are two versions of Sequenza IX.) These works were conceived across Berio's career, and they have been published and performed over the years in various versions, including some with orchestral accompaniments.

Because each of the 14 Sequenzas features a different solo instrument, and because they were written across almost 40 years for specific performers, the previous recordings that I know of have typically been on discs that feature a soloist in collections of works for his or her instrument. Thus, the thrust of the disc is the artist's virtuosity, sometimes displaying an array of works from different styles and periods. On such recordings, Berio's particular Sequenza is therefore a virtuoso display, often of dazzling instrumental power, much like the Bach solo cello suites or solo violin partitas performed singly as parts of recital programs.

Surely, Berio intended this and the fact that some of the Sequenzas have become part of advanced instrumental training and appear on graduate recitals attests to their virtuoso resiliency and challenge. But the Bach solo suites and partitas have a separate performance life in recordings of complete multi-disc sets, and have had since the earliest vinyl recordings. Whether Bach imagined the cello suites, for instance, presented as a sustained performance group is doubtful, but many listeners know them foremost in this format, and certainly Bach excepted them to be printed as a single set. As a result, listeners encounter these works with less emphasis on the performer's virtuoso display and more attention on the deeply introspective privacy of the composer's musical utterances.

Deutsche Grammophon's issuance of the Berio works as a set on 3 discs shifts attention in exactly the same way. In fact, unlike the extroversion of soloist mastery, in hearing them together, the introspection of the composer's private utterances is what stands out; and like Bach, Berio turns out to have a vehemently introspective side that I had not expected. Not only does each piece draw the listener into an intimate sound-space of lucid complexity and wonderful aural engagement, the 14 pieces explore an amazing range of aural intimacies.

Sequenza I for Flute (1958)

Despite a quieter slower section near the end, this six-minute work is perky and fluttery. It seems to say, "You want flute, I will give you flute," fulfilling one of the instrument's traditional roles. But each sequence of flutters comes to rest on one or two long-held notes before launching off again. Although such notes require tremendous control of breath, to the listener they feel like pauses "to regain one's breath" before the next fluttery sprint. The work explores the dichotomy between what constitutes breathlessness and the regaining of breath, as performer actuality and as conceptual representation. Internal dichotomies become generic to all the pieces and work to tug us into Berio's introspective landscapes of sound.

Sequenza II for Harp (1963)

For instance, this 8'18" work turns inside out the harp's traditional role of shimmering overtone resonances generated through runs and appoggiaturas. It seems to say, "You want overtones and resonances, I'll give them to you," but does so through pedal suspensions and struck notes and chords using various types of pressure. The sound seems to come out of the harp itself and not from the harpist's hands. The work also demands a dynamic range not usually associated with the instrument, thus carrying the listener into a play of contrasts with attention focused, rather than simply riding ripples of sound.

Sequenza III for Woman's Voice (1965)

At 8'16", this piece is a tour de force exploitation of voice as instrument rather than as vehicle for text. One remembers that in the 60s Berio wrote for the Swingle Singers, and Sequenza III, with its clicks and pops and non-verbal syllables, is akin to those works. With the playful brightness of it, the piece at first seems to rely heavily on virtuosic display. But on repeated listening, I find that like the flute work it hinges on a dichotomy of breath and breathing. When the voice explicitly references breathing, the performance is probably the least breath-consuming, but when it sprints and dashes through a dazzle of sounds and ranges seemingly effortless in its flight, it is doubtless the most breath-intensive and difficult to control.

Sequenza IV for Piano (1966)

With the 11-minute piano piece, we come to a concentrated essay in piano timbres. After Messaien, composers' conception of the piano was forever altered. Berio makes fiendish demands on his performer, but despite the lightening running clusters, the percussive chords, and the overtone resonances that are generated, I hear a somber subtext. It is not so much that frenzy is sadly purposeless and empty, but that action itself is, no matter how directed and purposeful, simultaneously directionless and void. I wonder if other listeners hear this soberness as well. It reminds me of the sadness upon which so many of Bach's dance movements ride, not only sarabands but minuets. Sequenza IV reminds me--in feeling, not style--of a Bach minute expanded and stretched out in time.

Sequenza V for Trombone (1965)

The trombone piece just under seven minutes continually calls attention to the materiality of the instrument. It shapes sounds through mouthpiece and tongue, through obstructions and directions of the bell, through innovative valve devices and through juxtapositions in dynamics, both from lowest to highest registers and from softest to most blaring. Unlike others in the group, it drives forward with an amassing of energy towards climax. Where the piano work fiendishly danced along above its somber questioning of purpose, the trombone seems to make purposefulness its central point. I hear an occasional wry and quirky dash of humor along the way, particularly in the fade-out at the end.

Sequenza VI for Viola (1967)

I have used the word frenzy, but perhaps too hastily, for the viola Sequenza, clocking it at 12'13", launches itself with a frenzy that portends unsustainability. Like the trombone piece, the rising chromatic levels of sound suggest structural direction. Even though the bow's feverish strokes rest from time to time so that the work falls into chunks of frenzy, it is almost midway through before anything like a rest is introduced. But the new figurations, some leaping and some choppy, do not suggest so much a release of tension or relaxation as a redirection. For me this piece is an essay in exquisite tension.

Sequenza VII for Oboe (1969)

The oboe Sequenza to me marks Berio's encounter (maybe not the first) with the musical explorations of his older, but in the 60s, still obscure Italian contemporary, Scelsi; for like Scelsi, the work exploits the timbres possible from repetitions of the same pitch. Like Scelsi, too, the focus on pitch and different ways of producing the same pitch propels the listener to a kind of meditative "trance" or "entrancement"--something Zen-like and transcendent. This particular mode of introspection is new to the Sequenza cycle.

Sequenza VIII for Violin (1976)

Only 30 seconds longer, the violin Sequenza invites comparison to the one written for viola nine years earlier. It has some of the same feverish drive but none of the wrenching tension. Nor does its perkiness seem to play out an argument about breathing as the oboe work had. This Sequenza, like the one for oboe, also explores pitch and timbre; so in some ways, it seems to be a summing up of much that went before. Perhaps the long break in years between VII and VIII forced Berio to survey the Sequenzas and to reposition himself in order to move forward. In doing so, a new mode of introspection appears. Sequenza VII exudes joy and wonder. I can imagine a violinist, in working it up for performance, must find the practice particularly energizing.

Sequenza IXa for Clarinet (1980)

Each of the Sequenzas from 1976-1995, except the last, is longer than any that preceded it. This expansion of duration of utterance is coupled with the exploration of meditative modes of joy. The clarinet Sequenza seems neither a song nor a dance but an invocation to the joy of life. However, make no mistake; Berio's utterances are all intensely personal and almost private. The listener witnesses and observes, but is never called upon to agree or join in. There is nothing either confessional nor traditionally romantic here.

Sequenza X for Trumpet (in C with piano resonance) (1984)

The trumpet Sequenza continues the exploration of pitch, timbre, sound production and overtone resonance. The trumpet at points actually blows into the raised top of a grand piano to resonate the overtone sequences of the vibrating strings, even though no one strikes a key. How can one not luxuriate in the sheer élan of this music?

Sequenza XI for Guitar (1987-8)

At over 15 minutes, the guitar Sequenza is the most dramatic. It is a study in contrasted textures and dynamics. Written for Eliot Fisk, who plays it here, it honors his astonishing performance style. Only in context with the other Sequenzas am I fully aware how its exuberance also carries an undertow of introspection, especially in the final minutes as the drama dissipates and calm ensues.

Sequenza XII for Bassoon (1995)

At 18 and a half minutes, Sequenza XII for Bassoon is the longest. It also marks a seven-year gap between it and its predecessor. Starting with long-breathed notes at the beginning with their microtonal and fluttered shifts, occasionally punctuated with contrasting bassoon timbres, the work is also to my ear the darkest. Although the tessitura slowly gravitates first down a chromatic sequence, then up again, the upward climb is also more agitated, so I never feel lifted. Berio was 70 when he wrote this, and the keen questioning of his musical intelligence is at its most stunning. The work seems to cap the Sequenzas and sum up the entire project, not in triumph but in an assertion of uncompromised and undiminished artistic authenticity.

Sequenza XIII for Accordion "Chanson" (1995)

The eight-minute Chanson for accordion is valedictory and lyrical, with a minor tonality supporting its waves of chords and quiet fluttery trills. One's entire set of expectations about the accordion as an instrument of communal dancing and armature music-making is displaced, and in its place Berio erects a sound-scape in the ear of total enchantment. At age 70, Berio could be keenly questioning as in Sequenza XII and also lyrically content as in this.

That the culminating works of Berio's 40-year project should be written for bassoon and accordion is one of the most delightful surprises of contemporary music.

To reacquaint myself with many of these works as part of a large project, rather than the separate virtuoso vehicles they seemed to be when first recorded, is to discover an introspective testament of tremendous appeal. Like the Bach solo partitas and suites, these are works I will return to again and again to fortify my spirit and to affirm the intensity with which humans can encounter their own most quiet and private selves.


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