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Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Coro per voci e strumenti (1975-76) [58:24]
Cries of London for eight voices (1974-76) [14:43]
Norwegian Soloists’ Choir
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Grete Pedersen
rec. 2018/19, NRK Radio Concert Hall, Oslo & Small Auditorium, Oslo Concert Hall
Texts included with some English translation
BIS BIS-2391 SACD [73:26]

Luciano Berio’s Coro is not only one of the composer’s absolute masterpieces, but also an important addition to the twentieth-century’s choral repertoire. That it has received few recordings to date is mostly due to its difficulty both for the performers and for the listener. Berio himself set the standard for the piece in his recording for DG, which may have discouraged others to take it up, though Leif Segerstam also recorded it (Orfeo).

Coro is scored, unusually, for 40 voices paired with 44 instrumentalists. The musicologist and critic Arnold Whittall in his illuminating notes to the SACD explains the specific “staging” Berio requires for the work: Instead of having the chorus as a block behind the instruments, “Berio specifies four different levels, each with groups of alternating singers and players, to achieve the maximum blending of different vocal and instrumental timbres.” Having experienced this only in audio, I then watched a Berlin Philharmonic performance from their Digital Concert Hall and the positioning of the performers added a whole other dimension.

The work itself is divided into 31 numbers, some extremely brief and each separately tracked on this recording. Berio based the text of the piece on lyrics from different cultures and on poems from Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, the only author who is named. The composer employs folk music in this work not explicitly, as in his 1964 Folk Songs, but as techniques and modes that are continually transformed without reference to specific songs. Interspersed with the folk poetry is a repeated phrase from Neruda, ‘Venid a ver (Come and see)’. The folk verses are rendered in English translation for the most part, but others are in French, Italian, German, and Hebrew. The Neruda texts, which remain in the original Spanish, at times allude to the Spanish Civil War with its invocation to “come and see the blood in the streets.” Berio composed Coro after Neruda’s death in 1973 and General Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. Both political events resonate in the work, which the composer wrote for the 1976 Donaueschingen Festival.
It is best not to view Coro as a song cycle with separate sections, but as a cumulative, many-layered piece.

The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and musicians from the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Grete Pedersen excel in bringing the piece to life with an extraordinary balance between singers and instruments. She does an amazing job in matching the vocalists with their instrumental partners. The accompanying booklet lists each singer and their respective orchestra member for all 40 vocalists. Whittall points to the wide range of expression in Coro from the “initial evocation of something supremely civilized—a Lieder recital for one soprano with rhapsodic piano accompaniment—to the collective rawness of the final dithyrambic threnody.” I suggest first following along with the text, and then just listening to the whole work without recourse to the words, letting it cast its own special spell.

After Coro one needs something lighter and less complex. BIS provides the perfect disc mate in the contemporaneous Cries of London that Berio composed for the six male voices of The King’s Singers and then revised for a mixed group of eight singers. He assembled the text from well-known English vendors’ cries, a suitable vehicle for the British group with its modicum of humour. Like Coro, the work has a recurring refrain, “These are the cries of London town.” It is interesting that in Berio’s own account he alternates this refrain both preceding and following the third section, “Garlic, good garlic.” In other accounts and in this new recording the performers follow the score, where the refrains are repeated together after the third section. Cries of London may seem simpler than Coro, but following the score, which is available on the internet, demonstrates how difficult the work is to sing with its overlapping repetitions of words and phrases. The Norwegian Soloists, again listed in the booklet, seem to make light of the work and are obviously enjoying its text without ever going over the top. It is really quite amazing, especially the penultimate number, “Money, penny come to me.”

These extraordinary performances would be for naught were it not for the lifelike recording that gives enough space around the performers, yet allows for plenty of clarity. Even in two channels, the SACD sound is little short of miraculous. As usual with BIS, the product as a whole is first-class. I never tire of commending them for their avoidance of plastic. Not only is the bi-fold album made of paper, but there are paper sleeves for the disc and booklet. It is also worth repeating that Arnold Whittall’s discussion of the works is highly valuable. The only shortcomings I noticed, and they are minor, are inaccurate timings of individual numbers and lack of English translation for some of the text. In every other way this is a major achievement.

Leslie Wright

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