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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Petite Suite pour Piano (1947) [9:19]
5 Variations (1953) [6:46]
Sequenza IV for piano (1965) [11:14]
Rounds (1967) [4:06]
Six Encores pour piano
Brin (1990) [1:45]
Leaf (1990) [1:23]
Wasserklavier (1966) [1:29] 
Erdenklavier (1969) [1:32]
Luftklavier (1985) [2:46]
Feuerklavier (1989) [3:04]
Andrea Bacchetti (piano)
rec. August 2000-August 2001, Accademia Pianistica Internazionale, Imola (Bologna). 
DECCA 476 1944 [43:24]
Experience Classicsonline


The cover of the booklet for this CD has Luciano Berio smiling in avuncular fashion in the general direction of Andrea Bacchetti’s portrait, and in essence this symbolises part of what makes this disc something a bit special. Andrea Bacchetti writes his own preface to the booklet notes, ‘In memory of the Maestro’, in which he describes his association and friendship with the great composer. They met when Bacchetti was only 12, and Berio’s interest and encouragement nourished Bacchetti’s artistic growth and development thereafter. Advising him on interpretation on numerous occasions where Berio attended performances, it was Andrea Bacchetti who was given the task of performing all of Berio’s solo piano works at a concert in the composer’s honour at the Musea della Scala in Milan in 2001, and Berio also provided advice and expressed his satisfaction with the recordings on this disc. My own link to Berio is far more tenuous, though I do have a line through my old composition teacher Louis Andriessen, who was a pupil of Berio in the 1960s. These lines back through a kind of educational history always used to seem a bit far-fetched to me, but in fact it can be quite revealing to see how, on occasion, the later generation teacher falls back on the methods and ideas of the ‘parent’. As a result I can think of a few examples where the footsteps of Berio have had their imprint on my own experience, and have certainly enhanced an understanding and appreciation of his own musical language.

The programme on this disc follows the works as far as possible in chronological order. The first and earliest piece is the non-serial Petite suite pour piano, which was written in 1947 while Berio was a student at the Milan Conservatory. Cast in six short movements with traditional titles such as Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue used in an ironic sense, the sparkling wit and inventiveness Berio shows as a young man is highly infectious, and the little nods and winks cast in various composers’ directions are so numerous and fleeting that the effect can be breathtaking. Berio’s skill in this piece is in that of adapting styles and characteristics from other composers in such a way that the pieces never sound derivative – eclectic yes, but transformed in such a cheeky and virtuoso fashion that the work has an irrepressible energy and life all of its own. This kind of music suits Bacchetti’s lightening technique very well, and serves to introduce his reliable sense of taste and touch in the way he portrays each musical picture with ideal weight or wit.

The Cinq variazioni throw us into the deep end of serial composition right away. The variations are presented on one track, and without a score it would seem a tough job to say exactly where one is in the piece. There are various different atmospheres and moods which define certain regions of the work however, so one can have a good guess. Atmospherics and moodiness are not really the right words for such a piece, whose intensity is pretty much white hot, even where the notes are more widely spaced and the contours less percussive. The booklet notes refer to Webern’s Variations Op.27 as a reference or starting point for understanding this piece, but as Carmelo Di Gennaro also mentions, the kind of rigid structuralised direction which Boulez took in his serialism is given a more lyrical touch in Berio. This is apparent from the opening bars, but don’t expect lyricism in terms of a romantic aria – the difference is more one of national character. If Webern is aromatic Austrian wine and Boulez a flinty Pouilly, then Berio marries the two with a certain amount of Mediterranean warmth: animated chatter and usually amicable argument, moments of loving tenderness and again that sense of driving, unstoppable energy: to conclude the metaphor; a vintage from the Rossese grape, which feels young and fresh even after over 50 years on the cellar shelf.

The Sequenza series of works have become Berio’s trademark solo masterpieces, and with the Sequenza IV for solo piano it is the recording of Aki Takahashi which has been my most recent reference. Always pushing at the boundaries of the technical possibilities of the instrument, Berio wrote that this piece “is to be considered a journey of exploration through the known and the unknown regions of instrumental colour and articulation.” This stops short of preparing the strings of the piano, or having the player pluck or damp them by hand, something which was very much the trend for the time. Andrea Bacchetti’s performance is highly assured, though with a more brittle and compact feeling than Takahashi’s. This is a point at which I have to mention the recording quality on this disc, which, despite the Decca label, is not the finest in the world. If you listen to the Takahashi performance you have much more insight into the subtle myriad of colours and nuances going on inside the piano than with Bacchetti’s recording. This is a shame, since Bacchetti’s performance is every bit as intense and engaging, but with a dry acoustic mixed with the feeling that the microphones are placed too far away to catch all the detail, one is always straining to hear the smallest intricacies in the softer passages. The feeling with the sound on this disc is that of a live recital, with the microphones stand placed further back up the aisle so that the set doesn’t get in the way of the view of the audience. It’s not a bad sound, but when you hear the alternative on the Mode label it does sound rather distant and opaque.

Never mind. Andrea Bachetti’s playing is full of sparkle and lively, poetic energy. What I like about his playing throughout this disc is the feeling of a synergy with the music, to the extent that the musical language sounds like a familiar narrative or discourse. It’s like when you hear Shakespeare played by actors for whom the bard’s verse is as natural as the flow of blood through the veins. When presented with such symbiotic ease the difficulties of the language fall away, leaving the listener able to concentrate on and revel in the unfolding drama.

Not long after Sequenza V, Berio wrote Rounds for harpsichord, later transcribing it for piano. The improvisational qualities in both make this a fascinating pairing, and Berio extends his experimentation with the third pedal – the one which allows individual notes or chords to remain sustained while others can be played damped. The effects from this are quite subtle, and you probably wouldn’t notice much difference from ‘conventional’ piano technique, but as the ideas leap around a limited number of tonal centres – single notes – then you do hear an effect of poly-harmonic rhythm: slow development against intense, compacted and fragmented material which sometimes seems to have the life cycle of a particle in CERN.

An appropriate conclusion, the 6 encores pour piano actually cover an extended period of the composer’s artistic life, dating from between 1965-1990. The pieces range from the sparing moments of the later works Brin and Leaf, through pictorial miniatures, the Brahms/Schubertian Wasserklavier, and the limited means of the atmospheric but challenging Erdenklavier. The final elemental experiments or studies Luftklavier and Feuerklavier come from the restless, ostinato-filled world of some of Berio’s contemporaneous orchestral works, receiving stunning performances on this recording.

There are one or two discs on the market which cover Berio’s output for solo piano. There is one on the Avie label with Andrea Lucchesini which includes the mighty Sonata, and David Arden has also recorded these works on New Albion Records. I’m afraid I have none of these for comparison, but can imagine that they might only beat this Decca disc in terms of sound quality. I have nothing but praise for Andrea Bacchetti’s playing of maestro Berio’s piano works, and knowing the close association between these two musicians, have little hesitation in putting them in something close to a definitive category. Bearing in mind the slightly dodgy sound quality on this disc however, I would say this deserves a remake, next time including the 2001 Sonata to give us decent playing time and a complete survey from this masterful interpreter.
Dominy Clements


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