Various Artists

Berio: The Complete Sequenzas, Alternate Sequenzas & Works for Solo Instruments

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Despite shifting trends and changing tastes in postmodern era contemporary music, Luciano Berio remains one of the most respected figures among composers active in the last half of the twentieth century. Berio's series of Sequenzas, however, are viewed as his main contribution to solo instrumental literature, sort of like Hindemith's instrumental sonatas except that Berio didn't manage to cover all the bases in terms of instruments. This has led some artists to make adaptations of certain sequenzas for their particular instruments, and Berio cast his blessing upon some of these efforts. All of the original sequenzas, which had arrived at the number 14 by the time Berio died in 2003, plus all approved arrangements and all short, non-pianistic solo works by Berio, appear in Mode's exhaustive Berio: Complete Sequenzas and Solo Works. Students wishing to prepare a Berio sequenza for a recital should stop here first.

Although Naxos managed to speed out a similar collection a little ahead of this one, it's really not in the same class with the Mode -- the label spent more than a decade recording this set with artists Berio himself favored. Many of the performances are downright amazing, for example Aki Takahashi's mind-bending performance of the Sequenza IV for piano and Kelland Thomas' smoky, soulful reading of Sequenza IXb for alto saxophone, just to mention a couple. All of the interpretations are first-rate, as is the annotation, photographs and sound, which retains a surprisingly consistent quality from track to track, as this four-disc set was recorded all over the map over a long period of time. Poet Edoardo Sanguinetti reads a short poetic prologue to each sequenza, as sanctioned by the composer, and while the readings, in Italian, are charming and set the scene for each piece in an elegant way, one is grateful that they are presented as separate tracks, so one only need to re-sequence to listen to the music without them.

So why does Berio persist in a post-turn-of-the century era where everything created in the last century is subject to review? Because the sequenzas, while fully composed, sound like improvisations and have the quality of flexibility. Expert performers prefer this having such capability over pieces where the effort has gone into the front end, deriving from some strategy that is not in itself worked out in an interesting way. Berio's music has a good chance of retaining currency within the future, and Mode's Berio: Complete Sequenzas and Solo Works represents the gold standard in paving the way for his legacy.

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