Salvatore SCIARRINO (b. 1947)
12 Madrigali (2007) [39.00]
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
rec. 3 August 2008, Kollegienkirche, Salzburg (Salzburg Festival)
COL LEGNO WWE1CD 20287 [39.00]

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 acoustically.

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.

Robert Hugill