|First of all, this is an important disc, in that it provides the first comprehensive survey of Berio’s piano music (in immaculate performances) and includes what appear to be several recorded premieres. Anyone interested in the composer’s work will have to buy this. Now, onto more nuanced evaluation.
The Sonata of 2001 is the major event here, so I am going to move briskly through the other works before approaching it. The Cinque variazioni of 1952/53 (rev. 1966) is a well-crafted serial-sounding effort in homage to Dallapiccola, suggesting the lyrical and harmonic richness of the model, but a bit cluttered by comparison. The 1966 Sequenza IV has by now been recorded many times by as many pianists, and it stands as a distinctive work in the repertoire, but for me, alas, one I have never really loved, nor one of my favorites in the set of Sequenzas. On the other hand, Rounds (1967) for piano is a reworking of a work for harpsichord which has a bracing conciseness and clarity, and these characteristics are even more on display in the Six Encores, which are a collection of bagatelles dating from 1964 to 1990 (apparently a grouping of short piano works the composer gathered late in life), and in the two tiny four-hand pieces, Touch and Canzonetta—both from 1991, composed as wedding gifts to Lucchesini, whose wife is also a pianist. These pieces tend to find a single sonority or mode of playing, and research them exhaustively in a couple of minutes. The results are bracing and delightful. (And the 1964 “Wasserklavier” from the Encores set is a near-shocker, in that it is written in a quite “straight” late 19th-century chromatic harmonic language, utterly right and affecting, sounding neither cheap nor pandering, and showing what an immaculate ear for traditional musics Berio had.) Berio’s fellow countryman, the novelist Italo Calvino, wrote a brilliant essay on “lightness” in art, and these pieces are exemplars of that quality. One feels that an immense amount has been said in a manner that’s economical, but not austere. Even though it’s compact, the music remains sensual and seductive, and one remains hungry for more—but “more” would probably be too much, like a second serving of an exquisite dessert.
Which leads to the Sonata, certainly one of the major efforts of Berio’s last years. And here my review is mixed. The piece is 23 minutes long, and it is certainly full of invention and delight. Structured around a repeating mid-register B (which is rhythmically flexible in its repetition and volume), for a long stretch the piece is compelling for the sheer abundance of invention that the composer spins around this very plain axis. The dedicatee, Reinhold Brinkmann, speaks of how the harmonies of the piece are constructed from an intersection of three landmark chords—the “Tristan” of Wagner, the E♭/E Sacre chord, and the repeated four-note harmony of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX. I don’t hear these literally, and I don’t think I’m meant to, as they are constantly mixed in ways to create a more general “fund” of harmonies. But the connection to the tradition of the previous century, as well as a certain resultant harmonic consistency, is palpable. By midpoint the B becomes activated into a machine-gun rapidly repeating figure, which in turn becomes a racing figure over the entire range of the keyboard. Much of this is thrilling.
And yet. For my taste the music begins to run out of conceptual steam well before its end, maybe at the two-thirds mark. And this suggests something larger about Berio’s practice. Since we now have had about four years since his passing, and a host of recordings on which to reflect, certain strengths and weaknesses seem ever clearer.
On the plus side, there are several—Berio had a rich lyrical and harmonic sense that he never denied, even in the height of modernist austerity; his connection to the past was a constant invigoration for his creative spirit, and his transcriptions and reworkings of past music are amongst the greatest ever written; and his feeling for the voice was the fount of a series of masterpieces, whether they be chamber works like Circles or the vocal Sequenza, or such immense monuments as Sinfonia or Coro.
On the other side, when Berio worked in the more abstract forms of the Classical tradition, limitations of his vision and practice become more evident. Two key techniques served him throughout his life: the “linear” one was to have a deep cantus of some sort which he could elaborate with extravagant ornamentation (often achieved through heterophonic layering and stunning orchestration), while the “vertical” consisted of choosing a sonority that was then animated and explored from different angles, a bit like striking a wind chime and observing the different ringing patterns that emerged. One can see that the more restricted the instrumental palette, as in chamber music, the more difficult it would be to pull these off over a long span. For me, it’s the shorter chamber and solo works that remain stunning. For many of the longer ones (including some of the Seqeunzas), one feels that the necessary architecture just isn’t strong enough to support the weight of the material.
I want to emphasize that Andre Lucchesini plays all this music with the extraordinary “lightness” it demands, and if it fails to reach the highest level for me, it’s not his fault. His long-term commitment to Berio’s music is a great gift to us listeners. Similarly, production of the disc is immaculate. If ultimately I make these criticisms, it is a way of a backhanded compliment to the composer, because he is one of the masters of the second half of the century (Sinfonia is quite possibly the greatest orchestral work of that period), and the superlative example he set in his finest works requires us lesser mortals to judge him by his own exacting standards.