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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Luciano BERIO (1925 – 2003)
Sequenzas I – XIV

Nora Shulman (flute); Erica Goodman (harp); Tony Arnold (soprano); Boris Berman (piano); Alain Trudel (trombone); Steven Dann (viola); Matej Šarc (oboe); Jasper Wood (violin); Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet); Guy Few (trumpet); Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar); Ken Munday (bassoon); Joseph Petric (accordion); Darrett Adkins (cello); Wallace Halladay (saxophones)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, 1998-2004
NAXOS 8.557661-63 [3 CDs: 63:02 + 60:09 + 58:48]

alternatively AmazonUK

The Complete Sequenzas, Alternate Sequenzas
Paula Robison (flute); Susan Jolles (harp); Isabelle Ganz (soprano); Aki Takahashi (piano); Stuart Dempster (trombone); Garth Knox (viola); Jacqueline Leclair (oboe); Irvine Arditti (violin); Carol Robinson (clarinet); Kelland Thomas (alto saxophone); William Foreman, Brian McWhorter (trumpet); Seth Josel (guitar); Noriko Shimada (bassoon); Stefan Hussong (accordion); Rohan de Saram (cello); Ulrich Krieger (soprano saxophone); Alain Billard (bass clarinet); Michael Cameron, Stefano Scodanibbio (contrabass); Jane Chapman (harpsichord); Lucia Mense (recorder); Gary Verkade (organ); all Sequenzas are preceded by verses of Edoardo Sanguinetti performed by Enzo Salomane
rec. 1995-2006; see end of review for complete details
MODE 161/3 [4 CDs: 66:43 + 78:11 + 76:36 + 47:02]


With two brand-new complete recordings of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas currently staring at you from the shop shelves, we felt it would be a good idea to do a direct comparison. This is of course an uneven match, since the 3 CD Naxos release only covers the ‘b’ versions of VIIb for soprano saxophone, and IXb for alto saxophone. Mode has all of the alternatives and the complete canon of other solo works by Berio on 4 CDs, so as already noted by other reviewers, completists will most likely go for this 4 CD set. True completists will in fact want both, but that’s another story. The Naxos box is in a conventional jewel-case with notes in English and German, players biographies in English only. The Mode set has each CD in its own paper sleeve, a nice chunky book with plenty of information in English, German and French with glossy black and white pictures of the performers in action, and a cardboard box to hold it all together.
 
One other aspect of the Modus set is the texts which precede each Sequenza. Edoardo Sanguinetti began writing verses for the Sequenzas in 1994, but had already collaborated with Berio on a number of projects from as early as around 1960. Enzo Salomane’s deep, resonant voice is a wonderful vehicle for these texts, but the desirability of their inclusion in this way is debatable, even with English translations in the booklet notes (not translated into German or French by the way). I have nothing against texts written on music, and the composer’s artistic synergy with Sanguinetti is a matter of record. Having them read at the top of a recording has however the tendency to lend programmatic weight to a work which may not even have been intended by the composer – it may be there is programmatic weight, just not necessarily expressed by that particular text or manner of delivery. If a composer really wanted such things then he would write or select them himself, and probably include them in the score with instructions on options for performance. They are nice enough texts, and have an alliterative resonance and rhythm in the original Italian which is undeniably poetic. Presented with (giving allowances for the translation, and chosen more or less at random); “my capricious frenzy was once your livid calm/my song will be the slowness of your silence”, would you be able to guess to which of the Sequenzas this refers? Paste it in front of any of them and we find our suggestible selves nodding in sage agreement with the writer’s sentiments. Each text is thankfully given its own track marking, so it is possible to programme them out of an airing of these recordings if desired.
 
Much of Berio’s music, the Sequenzas included, inhabits a world of inner drama which interacts with the outside world in a surreal fashion. It’s the kind of drama which confronts and subverts within the mind, entering and rummaging around in the subconscious and then rearing up in front of you like a giant balloon clown when you least expect it. The relationships of perspective between the player and his/her instrument, and between the player and the audience, are in state of constant distortion and flux. This is summed up in a way by that single word ‘why’ in Sequenza V for trombone. The ‘wha’ of the mute being moved over the bell of the instrument is given an added declamatory significance after that moment, and a musical conversation or monologue – real or imagined, ensues. Each of the Sequenzas benefits from being seen performed live for this reason as well. The theatrical actions of the musicians as they negotiate Berio’s music is another important element which is missed by any recording, although the physical movement involved in Sequenza II for harp does come across to a certain extent in the Naxos recording. In other words, an imaginatively produced but unpretentious DVD version next, please.
 
So, dear reader, you are still standing in the record shop, busting for a pee or dying for a pint and still wondering which version in which to invest. One is priced at about £13 for three CDs, the other over £40 for four – help! This is very much an uneven playing field, so if budget is a prime consideration I can say now that you will not be disappointed with the Naxos set. In many instances the recordings have a larger stereo soundstage and more depth in the recorded sound, and are certainly placed in a more resonant acoustic, which does reduce the hothouse effect of having the musician a few metres from your chair rather than being in the prime spot in a concert hall.
 
I do not propose doing detailed comparisons of every piece, so I shall restrict myself to the aspects of certain recordings or performances which, to my mind, stand out as significant. The element of swings and roundabouts has occasionally left me unable to choose, one way or another.
 
Sequenza I for flute. Honours about equal for this audition-torture work known to flautists all over the world, but where Naxos present Nora Shulman in resonant splendour, Mode’s Paula Robison has to make do with what sounds like a large bathroom. The same goes for Sequenza II for harp, and I much prefer Erica Goodman’s (Naxos) tuning, articulation, variety in colour and low ‘dong’s.

Sequenza III for voice is of course a core work in this collection. Both performances are very good, and personal taste plays a huge role in such a piece. Isabelle Ganz (Mode) is a mezzo-soprano with quite a silvery sound at times – the break in her voice very occasionally making her sound like your mad grandmother. Tony Arnold (Naxos) is a soprano, and has to my ears the advantage of being able to reach down from easy highs, rather than push upward from a lower basic range. Ganz is a little more gritty in her ‘acting’, having a little more depth in this aspect of her performance. Arnold more smiling and flighty, showing some restriction in the lowest notes, but with a schizophrenic inhalation ‘gasp’ which would have you running for your life.
 
Sequenza IV for piano is given a more sympathetic acoustic from Mode this time, and Aki Takahashi is just that much more convincing than Boris Berman, who is very good, but whose antimetrics sound merely uneven at times, rather than being engraved in glass.     
 
Sequenza V for trombone receives excellent performances on both releases, but I find Stuart Dempster’s (Mode) ‘why’ over-eggs the pudding, attempting to load the word with too much gaping wonder for my taste. Alain Trudel is more subtle – his ‘why’ is a strange, plaintive question, but raises more goose-bumps as a result.
 
Sequenza VI for viola is a bit of a scrub by any standards, but Garth Knox (Mode) is intense almost beyond endurance, certainly beyond comfort. The Naxos recording gives the player a little more acoustic breathing space. Steven Dann attacks the work with similar verve, but the clarity of the moments between repeated notes is a little less obvious. 
 
Sequenza VIIa for oboe is a kind of fantasy around a single note, which is held ‘by any other instrument’ offstage throughout the piece. Where the Naxos ‘note’ is a single sine-wave like sound, the Mode recording has a note with texture and the human element, three singers holding the note and breathing ‘invisibly’. The spatial effect adds a fascinating extra quality to this intense and dramatic work.
 
For Sequenza VIII for violin the Mode set has the benefit of the legendary Irvine Arditti, who was central in gathering the musicians for these recordings. Repeated notes, and the filigree gestures and dissonant double-stop intervals which are Berio violinistic fingerprints create a kind of melting-pot of modern technique and style with acknowledgements of ageless tradition. Arditti frequently sounds like two violinists, which means the contrapuntal effects are coming across at their best. This is ground on which it is hard for any other violinist to compete, and while Matej Šarc plays brilliantly I don’t quite get the same Berio ‘feel’. The notes are all there with Šarc, but Arditti knows how to draw out the personality in the idiom; the Italian voices muttering under the floorboards, as well as creating an incomparable performance.
 
Sequenza IXa for clarinet is mellifluous and elegant through the playing of Joaquin Valdepeñas on Naxos, helped once again by that rich church acoustic. Carol Robinson has a slightly wider range, more introverted in the soft, lyrical passages, and with a little more bite and attack when things become more hairy.
 
Sequenza X ‘for trumpet in C and piano resonance’; rather than pushing the technical demands of the instrument, extends the acoustic effect of resonance by having selected sympathetically vibrating strings on a piano respond to notes from the trumpet. With Naxos’ acoustic already being quite resonant, the effect of the strings is present, but not nearly as dramatic as on the Mode recording. You can hear William Foreman (Mode) changing his direction of play, pointing his trumpet into the piano on certain notes. You also sense vague movements from the poor silent pianist, whose skill and touch with the keys and pedal are doomed to anonymity in both releases. Foreman’s ‘doodle’ tonguing is more convincing than Guy Few’s on Naxos, but both have a wide palette of colour, articulation and dynamic.
 
Sequenza XI for guitar is stunning on both versions, Pablo Sáinz Villegas (Naxos) coming in a spectacular but no less expressive two minutes shorter than Seth Josel (Mode), who spends more time on the more introspective passages.
 
Sequenza XII for bassoon is one of the longest of all of the Sequenzas, having come about as the result of a close collaboration with bassoonist Pascal Gallois. Berio was clearly fascinated by the ‘voice’ of the bassoon, expanding at length on its variety of character, from jolly eccentric to grumpy old man through soulful drunk or unfortunate beast, or indeed whatever image is created in your mind’s eye. I like Ken Mundy’s (Naxos) rounded and beefy tone, and his ability to circular breathe as good as silently, but both performances and recordings have valuable qualities. Noriko Shimada has a microphone placement which picks up the multiple fingerings on one note more clearly, and her playing produces richer overtones, making for a more ‘bassoony’ sound.
 
A tag end of Enzo Salomane’s voice bleeds a little carelessly into the track of Sequenza XIII for accordion on the Mode version. This minor productional blip takes nothing from Stefan Hussong’s marvellous playing however, as micro-windows open into the various worlds into which Berio gives us glimpses – tango, jazz, even some moments which suggest a church harmonium. The piece’s lyrical character has a slightly less ‘legato’ character with Joseph Petric on Naxos, and while technically good, is a less revelatory experience for the imagination.
 
Sequenza XIV was written for Rohan de Saram, cellist with the Arditti Quartet, and is one of the last pieces Berio wrote before he died. Rohan de Saram inevitably has the edge on anyone else recording this piece, having worked closely with Berio on the work, and performing the premieres of this and the subsequent revisions made between 2002 and 2003. The percussive sounds derive from De Saram’s Sri Lankan origins, and his performance is filled with poetry and lyrical expressiveness, as well as having all of the dynamic ‘kick’ the piece demands. Turning to Darrett Adkins on Naxos, I at first wondered if he was playing the same piece. All I can say is that a player attempting this work is likely to need some kind of masterclass on some of the techniques involved, as many of the intended effects do not come across in at all the same way in the Naxos recording. Adkins is good, but De Saram is as good as definitive.
 
As far as direct comparisons go, there only remain the two saxophone works on the Naxos set. Sequenza VIIb receives an excellent performance by both Wallace Halladay (Naxos) and Ulrich Krieger (Mode), but the sustained offstage note in both is a characterless sine-wave, and in Krieger’s case a note with which the player seems not to be in tune for big patches of the piece. Sequenza IXb is a toss up between rich resonance and a mellow, rounded sound (Naxos), or what sounds like artificial resonance imposed on a dry studio taping (Mode) – there is a definite discrepancy between the ‘booth’ acoustic and halo of resonance which is helping the sound.  Both players, Halladay again for Naxos and Kelland Thomas for Mode are excellent, though I find Halladay more dramatic and varied in his big space, Thomas’ version sounds more like a skilled read-through.
 
So, have you been keeping score? I make it Naxos 5, Mode 8 where it comes to clear wins, with three score-draws. The weakest parts of the Mode set are the recordings of some of the earlier Sequenzas and the saxophone alternatives, Naxos falls down where players are have a less distinctly ‘Berio’ character, or are less authoritative. The Naxos set has the benefit of a single, pleasantly resonant recorded location, which can however have the effect of ‘smoothing out’ the extremes of Berio’s message. Mode’s recordings are almost invariably more detailed and confrontational, but inevitably a bit of a mixed bag. The jewels in their crown are of course the recordings by Rohan de Saram of all of Berio’s work for solo cello, and to my mind the violin of Irvine Arditti and accordion of Stefan Hussong to name just a few. Even where the recording are less appealing the performances are always good, and most are superb. I have to agree that, having now heard both sets, and currently having my ears and mind stimulated by wonderful work on the Sequenza XIVb for double-bass and a myriad of other less frequently aired solo works, I would find it hard to rest easy with the Naxos set alone, good though it is. It looks like you are going to have to bite the bullet, stop jingling the loose change in your pocket and get out your credit card …
 
Dominy Clements

see also reviews by Glyn Pursglove (Naxos), Hubert Culot (Naxos) & Anne Ozorio (Mode)
 

Complete track listings for Mode
CD1
Sequenza I for flute, (1958) [7:56]
Paula Robison, rec. 1996
Sequenza II for harp (1963) [10:15]
Susan Jolles, rec. 1995
Sequenza III for woman’s voice (1965) [8:46]
Isabelle Ganz, rec. 1996
Sequenza IV for piano (1966) [12:05]
Aki Takahashi, rec. 1999
Sequenza V for trombone (1966) [5:02]
Stuart Dempster, rec. 1995
Sequenza VI for viola (1967) [13:16]
Garth Knox, rec. 1995
Sequenza VII for oboe (1969/2000) [7:36]
Jacqueline Leclair, rec. 2004
CD2
Sequenza VIII for violin (1976) [13:56]
Irvine Arditti, rec. 1995
Sequenza IXa for clarinet (1980) [16:04]
Carol Robinson, rec. 2000
Sequenza IXb for alto saxophone (1981) [17:50]
Kelland Thomas, rec. 1967
Sequenza X for trumpet and piano resonance (1984) [15:16]
William Foreman, rec. 2001)
Sequenza XI for guitar (1987/8) [18:42]
Seth Josel., rec. 2003
CD3
Sequenza XII for bassoon (1995) [17:07]
Noriko Shimada, rec. 2001
Sequenza XIII for accordion “Chanson” 1995) [10:10]
Stefan Hussong, rec. 2000*
Sequenza XIVa for cello (2002) [11:38]
Rohan de Saram, rec. 2004*
Sequenza VIb for cello (1981) [15:34]
Rohan de Saram, rec. 2001*
Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone (1995) [7:29]
Ulrich Krieger, rec. 2004
Sequenza IXc for bass clarinet (1980) [13:37]
Alain Billard, rec. 2005
CD4
Sequenza XIVb for contrabass (2004) [12:56]
Stefano Scodanibbio, rec. 2005*
Rounds for harpsichord (1964/5) [2:08]
Jane Chapman, rec. 2005
Gesti for recorder (1966) [5:20]
Lucia Mense, rec. 1995
Fa-Si for organ (1975) [9:47]
Gary Verkade, rec. 2005
Les mots sont allés…for cello (1978) [4:03]
Rohan de Saram, rec. 2004
Lied for clarinet (1983) [5:04]
Comma for clarinet (1987) [1:34]
Carol Robinson, rec. 2005*
Psy for contrabass (1989) [1:57]
Michael Cameron, rec. date unknown
Chanson pour Pierre Boulez for cello (2000) [2:46]
Rohan de Saram, rec. 2006*
Gute Nacht for trumpet (1986) [1:04]
Brian McWhorter, rec. 2005
*first recording



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