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.
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.
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.
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. .