I've often had a love/hate relationship with the music of Berio, I'm not sure exactly why. His more serialist music never seemed startlingly original to me...the Sequenzia, though interesting as experiments, never really grabbed me as pieces (though that may be a prejudice that I've often harbored against solo instrumental pieces...one that I've only recently begun to work through by listening to the Bach Cello Suites again.) And the Sinfonia, which has often been touted as his masterpiece, seems to me to be increasingly dated...sounding more and more like the work of a flower child. Then along comes this CD and I rethink everything that I've ever thought about this composer. These are amoung the most original and stunning works of the last 20 years.
The Cd is dominated by two pieces, Voci for viola and orchestra and Naturale for viola and percussion and tape. In between the two Berio pieces are field recordings of Sicilian folk songs upon which the works are based. The folk music is arresting, sounding more mideastern than Italian and thus showing Sicily's roots in the Moorish empire. (Sardinian and Corsican music have much the same impact.) The music is highly melismatic, and dominated by microtones and unusual textures.
Just these recordings by themselves are haunting, but what Berio does with them is magnificent! Voci has it's antecedents in the Folk Song "arrangements" that Berio did for Cathy Berberian in the 60's (another of my favorite Berio pieces). But here, Berio completely subsumes the folk elements into his own style. While you can initially hear some of the motives from the folk songs, particularly in the viola part, the orchestra begins a running commentary that eventually transforms the material into something rich and strange. Comparisons are made in the liner notes to Bartok and they are apt comparisons, though the music sounds nothing like the Hungarian master. Rather, like Bartok, Berio completely internalizes his material...so much so that we can't speak of folk song quotations or influence in the music. It is all of a piece.
The same is true for Naturale, which inhabits the same basic world as Voci, albeit with more transparency. The ties to folk music are even stronger in this work, with the taped section consisting of fragments of field recordings. The field recorded material announces the "theme" of each section and is immediately commented on by the viola and percussion and eventually transformed. There are moments of such exquisite beauty in this work, that I nearly cried....something I rarely do with avant-garde music. But Berio transcends his avant-garde roots in this work, making such stylistic distinctions obsolete.
My only wish with this music is that Berio would continue more in this path. Other works of his from the 80s and 90s have left me with that cold feeling again...particuarly Continuum, which was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, and could have been written by half a dozen contemporary composers. The path of Voci and Naturale is much more interesting and the creative possibilities are endless. Please Mr. Berio, I'd like some more!
PS A great big thanks to austintrain, whose review below interested me enough in the piece that I overcame my Beriophobia and bought it. Boy am I glad I did!