Despite the fact that Manfred Eicher's ECM New Series imprint has been issuing groundbreaking recordings for the better part of 20 years and has introduced the world at large to the music of Arvo Pärt, Hilliard Ensemble, and Eleni Karaindrou, among others (including the glorious technical mastery of violist Kim Kashkashian, who appears here), this new recording of Luciano Berio's masterwork Voci is among the label's most stellar achievements. Voci and Naturale are the full realization of Berio's deep, long-held fascination with and reverence for Sicilian folk songs and melodies. And while Voci was recorded before, with violist Aldo Bennici, it, and its companion Naturale, take on new meaning here. Berio's interviews over the past three decades have been rife with commentary of the influence of folk music upon his life and work, and his deep desire to somehow bridge the gap between them. That they might inform one another rather than stand in opposition. He has written with folk motifs before, as early as the 1940s and certainly in the 1960s, when his Folk Songs for Cathy Berberian won nearly universal acclaim. This work from 1984, however, uses the music of the ages, the music of working people as a metonymic device, to be referred to and evoked in the creation of something new. As a viola concerto, Voci is a work that meditates deeply on the wellspring of folk traditions by weaving a fantasia-like tapestry through them, with a wide emotional palette and one of the most expansive timbral terrains he's ever attempted to cross. Kim Kashkashian uses the notion of the human voice to accomplish her role as the interlocutor of the piece's heart and soul. Her recordings of Kodaly and Bartok have brought her in close touch with folk traditions, and she uses Berio's score to extract that necessary communal emotion, that communicative speaking pattern that crosses the wide tonal palette and literally sings. Davies conducts the orchestra as if it were the supporting chorus for these moments, holding fast to the color schemes Berio relates in the score for Voci and bringing Kashkashian and Schulkowsky into communication across the spatial plane of harmonic interrelationships and melodic constructs that eke their way through.
The score for Naturale, originally commissioned for a dance piece, is much different, wildly colorful, and evocative of a folk dance rather than song. It is more communicative in ensemble and Schulkowsky in particular uses her role as a co-soloist rather than as a support player. It is explosive, emotionally charged, and brilliantly executed, particularly in the woodwinds. This is not a complementary piece for Voci, but its most condensed realization in a sense, where the traditions are all at play at once, in concert and in context with one another, speaking in tongues that both unite them and highlight their differences. What unites the two works on disc are five Sicilian folk songs. They are actual field recordings from the ethnomusicological archives in Rome. They have been placed here not as a literary device to anchor motif and intention, but as a bridge in the continuum, a citing of difference and longing and the return of Berio's gaze to its source. It is a brilliant device that acts in concert with the package, which features two booklets that include a fantastic essay by Jurg Stenzi on Berio's native nanguage, which quotes the composer; a still from Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema on the cover; photographs of the Sicilian landscape by Giuseppe Leone; a photo essay of the recording session by Roberto Masotti; and an interview with Kim Kashkashian about the project itself. Sonically, the new recordings are without compare, crystalline and pure, exactly what one would expect from ECM, and the field recordings have been cleaned up enough to reflect the totality of their meaning without being deadened by modern technology. This is quite a moment for Berio, and for the rest who take the time to open themselves to his gift.