To listen to Salvatore Sciarrino’s 12 Madrigali you
must enter a new realm. Sciarrino’s writing is uncompromising
in its creation of its own very individual sound-world.
The Twelve Madrigals were written in 2007 for an ensemble of
four male voices and three to four female voices - the alto and
mezzo soprano parts can be sung by the same singer. The work
was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and this world premiere
recording is a live recording, something which only becomes apparent
when we hear the applause at the end.
The madrigals set six haiku by the Japanese writer Matsuo Basho
(1644 - 1694), in Sciarrino’s own translations. The themes
of the poems are taken from nature. Sciarrino sets the poems
twice, dividing the work into two halves; part 1 sets the 6 poems
and then part 2 sets the same six poems in the same order. Sciarrino
calls part 2 a specchio infedele (unfaithful mirror).
Sciarrino has previously done Haiku settings where he repeated
the text three times.
Sciarrino is a self-taught composer, owing allegiance to no particular
school of music. In 12 Madrigali his settings evoked,
for me, the 1960s and 1970s works for vocal ensemble such as
Stockhausen’s Stimmung and Berio’s A Ronne.
That said, Sciarrino does not use microphones - the singers perform
He uses quite a narrow range of gestures from which to construct
his magical cosmos. Long-held notes feature extensively, especially
with messa di voce, gradual - or in Sciarrino’s
case not so gradual - crescendos on a single held note. Slides
and glissandi also appear, often in combination with those long-sustained
notes. The final main building block deployed is the small gesture:
a motivic flurry of notes. Reviews of Sciarrino’s other
works have commented on his use of silence. Here he does not
use silence as such, but the texture is frequently very spare,
pared down to a single voice or just two voices. When others
interject, there is a feeling of drama, of something happening.
The singers on this disc build on this to create a feeling of
a hidden dramatic work. There are occasional uses of extra vocal
techniques and sprech-stimme, but Sciarrino restricts these to
particular occasions. All these gestures are put at the service
of the words, so that the music evokes the text. Sciarrino is
varied in the way he does this so that the paired settings of
the same text, take vastly different routes to the same destination.
By restricting himself to this relatively limited palette of
gestures, Sciarrino ensures that there is coherence to the work.
You can listen to the twelve madrigals in one sitting and feel
that they are a single organic whole. Or you can listen to each
one individually and note how they express the text.
These are works not for the faint-hearted. You need to listen
to the disc a few times to get into Sciarrino’s mind. In
that sense he is uncompromising, takes no prisoners; you have
to accept him on his own terms. When you do, the results can
be rewarding. I have to admit that when doing so myself, I had
to first to fight down a series of prejudices arising from the
way Sciarrino’s work for vocal ensemble conjured up the
those iconic 1970s works.
The Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart is an impressive group, judging
by their live performance captured here. They were formed in
1984 and specialise in contemporary vocal music. Here they sing
with admirable clarity and accuracy. Vibrato is kept to a minimum
and used sparingly, which is a blessing with all those held notes
and the messa di voce. That said, one of the sopranos
has a slightly edgy voice and her tone can become rather sharp
and hard-edged in the louder held notes. But then again, this
is perhaps a deliberate colouration.
The CD has the complete texts plus a group of informative articles
about the composer and his music. For those who want to analyse
the music further, Max Nyffeler points the way in an article
which explores how Sciarrino’s music relates to the text
and its depiction.