A Scintillating Berio Concert Also Pays Tribute to ‘Max’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berio: Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London, 22. 3.2016. (CC)

Introductory talk by Gillian Moore, MBE and members of the Nash Ensemble

Sequenza I for solo flute (1958): Philippa Davies (flute)

Sequenza IV for solo piano (1966): Ian Brown (piano)

Sequenza VII for solo oboe and recorded drone (1969): Gareth Hulse (oboe)

Naturale (su melodie siciliane) (1985): Lawrence Power (viola); Chris Brannick (perc)

As part of their “Mozart, Mendelssohn and the Italians” series, members of the Nash Ensemble performed music by Lucano Berio: three of his Sequenzas and Naturale. There were to have been four Sequenzas, but harpist Lucy Wakeford, who was to have given us Sequenza II, had been taken ill with gastric flu. Touchingly, and properly perhaps, the performances were dedicated to the memory of Peter Maxwell Davies.

Gillian Moore’s introductory talk was consistently fascinating, furnishing us with background, linking Berio to Umberto Eco (his best friend at one point) and Steve Reich, who he taught. She also discussed the challenges of the various works with those who were about to perform them as well as giving us the “pure” recorded folk-voice of Naturale, shorn of Berio.

This performance of Sequenza I was of the original 1958 version (there is a 1992 published version that reinstates Berio’s original rhythms written within a 2/8 frame; but the original has proportional notation without bar-lines). There was no doubting that Philippa Davies has lived with this piece for a very long time, given the confidence and precision with which it was delivered. The piece includes an implied two-part fugue in tribute to the Baroque tradition – Berio was very aware of the weight of history. Fascinating exploration of the instrument is very much a part of the composer’s expressive vocabulary: the way that the same note is “coloured” via different fingerings is explored here, and there is a brief example of multiphonics.

The piano Sequenza makes much use of the piano’s third pedal, which as Ian Brown pointed out in the pre-concert event, is a much under-used resource. There was a superb sense of rightness about Brown’s performance; less exiting and more cushioned, sonically, than some (try Andrea Lucchesini’s hard-edged recording, which more explicitly locates Berio amongst the modernists). Brown found poignant expression here as well as brittle gesture, and that is surely to his credit.

Written for oboe and recorded drone, the oboe Sequenza explored the many different shades of the note B natural over a very quiet, very subtle electronic drone of that note. The agile solo part was perfectly rendered by the experienced Gareth Hulse in a demonstration of exceptionally fine oboe playing. Multiphonics were astonishingly, almost shockingly, full-bodied, with Hulse controlling these unpredictable beasts expertly.

The twenty-minute Naturale (su melodie sicilane) is a little miracle of a work, inviting in the music of the streets (the untrained street cries of Palermo); the viola’s response is frequently folk material itself. Carnival and lullaby add depth to the picture, while percussion extends its rhythmic homebase to the creation of blank sonic backgrounds on which the solo viola can paint its melodies, or to beautiful harmonic stretches thanks to the deeply expressive sound of the marimba. Recorded bells inform the final stretch of the work. In Lawrence Power’s playing, the vocal basis of Berio’s writing (the composer was Italian, after all) was unmistakable. Technically the demands must be supreme, including left-hand pizzicato decorating a bowed melodic line and strumming like a mandolin or banjo. Powers’ grasp of the score was simply amazing, and the Bartókian slant he brought to some of the viola statements of folk material was unbearably poignant; his control of high viola harmonics likewise led to a deeply haunting, delicate moment. This was a remarkable piece with which to end this tribute to both Berio, and Max.

Colin Clarke