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Luigi NONO (1924-1990)
Io, Frammento da Prometeo for three sopranos, small chorus, bass flute, contrabass clarinet and live electronics (1981)
Das Atmende Klarsein for small chorus, bass flute, live electronics and tape (1980-83)
Katia Plaschka, high soprano; Petra Hoffmann, soprano, Monika Blair-Ivenz, soprano; Roberto Fabbriciani, bass flute; Ciro Scarponi, contrabass clarinet
Soloistenchor Freiburg
Electronic realization and sound direction by Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig
Conducted by André Richard
COL LEGNO WWE 2 SACD 20600 [72.33 + 38.34]

In the early 1980s Luigi Nono increasingly became a regular guest of the ‘Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung’ which exists within the complex of the Sudwestrundfunk in Freiburg. He was joined from time to time by Klaus Huber, Dieter Schnebel and other German avant-gardists. Nono, of course, was Italian, had differing sensibilities and also had a very sensitive and original mind.

‘Das atmende Klarsein’ was written over a period of three years during which time he was also working on his Prometheus opera and ‘Io frammento’. Steven Lindberg tells us in the booklet that André Richard founded the ‘Solistenchor Freiburg’ especially for "a performance and recording of Nono’s ‘Das atmende Klarsein’. During the rehearsals and many sound experiments ... Nono found the young ensemble had the qualities of voice and expressiveness he needed for his compositional work".

These recordings date from 2001 and were made during a concert in the series ‘Zeitfluss’ in collaboration with the Salzburg Festival. Lindberg goes on, "Interpreters who had performed the work during Nono’s lifetime were engaged for the recordings whenever possible. The live electronics were also produced using the devices and instruments used by Nono." Hence in the booklet we have pictures of the composer in the studio during the 1981 performance and working at the consul alongside André Richard.

Before hearing these two long and important works I prepared myself for Nono’s unique sound-world by listening again to the brief ‘A Carlo Scarpa, architetto’(1984) on Astrée E8741. This work is amazingly quiet with long silences. Revisiting it enabled me to hone my concentration. Then I turned to the shortest work on this CD first, a course of action I would recommend.

‘Das Atmende Klarsein’ falls into eight sections each separately tracked. Each chorus movement headed by a single word is followed by one for the bass flute which as the piece progresses becomes increasingly distorted by the electronic effects. Extraordinary noises are created partially as a result of the playing techniques Nono specifices but also due to the constant alteration of the sound source. Silence also plays a significant part in the work which is very austere and hardly rises above mp except in just a few very telling places.

Many of the general comments already made apply to ‘Io frammento’ on this its premiere recording. Both texts were "assembled" by Nono’s poet friend Massimo Cacciari. They are given in the booklet but are difficult to read as they are partially hand-written transcripts, being variously in Greek, German and Italian, and also, mostly deliberately, inaudible.

What does it sound like?

It is part of Nono’s genius in these pieces to meld the electronic sampling with the vocal effects. Indeed it is often quite difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. The solo soprano is often so stratospherically high that one wonders if her voice is being electronically altered. The bass flute is often playing high in its register. It echoes the soprano sometimes so closely that they seem to be one. Human and electronic sound intermixed in one prolonged cry.

How is the text set?

Pointillism, which you may associate with the Webern, Stockhausen, and Boulez schools of the 1950s, is the key. Sometimes the voices are in unison, pp on the first syllable, then a voice will strike out say a fifth higher, then another a major 7th above on the second syllable, then a cluster chord will develop ff, on the third, leaving suddenly only one voice exposed. This then fades and is swallowed into its own echo and the sound of a flutter-tonguing contrabass clarinet. This is what happens towards the end of the work on the word ‘Ignora’ The word itself is irrelevant but there is a drama within each section. It is aided by the overall expansive structuring. For instance ‘Io’ begins with the full group; section 2 possesses only bass flute and clarinet. Section 3 has solo soprano and women’s voices and section 4 is for solo soprano and bass flute. The work continues, with these contrasting colours, movement by movement, ending with chorus alone.

Is there a background story to ‘Io’. Yes, to quote the booklet notes by Jurg Stenzl: "Nono has understood the figure of Io from Aeschylus’s ‘Prometheus’ as a wanderer, having been driven into exile. Without question, when Nono spoke of Io and Prometheus he meant himself as well". Nono’s quoted comments, which follow, may help the listener further. The music "… is about choice between a balanced, considered, yet certain existence and a problematic, restless, even frightening one - but with movements of joy - that is open to all experience and knowledge".

The performance seems incredible to me and I have to say that it is difficult to fault it.

The singers are astonishing in their accuracy and tuning in these fiendishly difficult harmonies. Especially marvellous is the coloratura soprano Katia Plaschka. The electronics are controlled superbly by Michael and Reinhold Braig. The woodwind playing is extraordinary especially in the players’ consistent ability to play the unusual sounds Nono requires.

The final question is, especially with ‘Io, frammento’: have you as a listener got the patience to match the creative imagination of the composer and the performer’s stamina?

When listening you need almost to wear another pair of ears. It’s not easy at 72 minutes. I would recommend that after track 5 a natural break could be formed before the final 30 minutes. These are unique and ground-breaking compositions which are worth trying to come to terms with.

Gary Higginson

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