Let me start with a childhood memory. Once upon a time in the 1970s, when there were only two RAI TV channels to watch and “culture” hadn’t yet become a word from a foreign language, Italians could, if they so desired, enjoy a late night new music series hosted by Luciano Berio, something unimaginable today. Fast forward to 2005 and I find myself horrified reading an article in an English “progressive” magazine that puts the Maestro from Omegna in the same bag as lightweights like Roberto Cacciapaglia and Franco Battiato (the latter much hyped these days, but essentially a fraud, having invented a whole “experimental” career by travelling paths that had already been well trodden years before by illustrious forerunners, before returning to his squalid Italian pop-song origins when he ran out of ideas to “borrow”), so that non-experts might conclude that Berio is a sort of father figure to the musical genres the rag in question calls “the strangest type of spaghetti.” This gorgeous 4-CD box should once and for all open the eyes of anybody who still associates Berio with fourth-rate copycats, or those who have probably heard about his music only in a peripheral way (“Cathy Berberian’s husband“, “Steve Reich’s teacher“), and help them understand why this man is an authentic and rare Italian treasure as far as modern art is concerned.

Berio chose the name “Sequenza” because these pieces, composed from 1958 through 2002, were “built from a sequence of harmonic fields from which the other, strongly characterized musical functions were derived”. To quote Sabine Feisst’s liners, “the Sequenze became seeds for a variety of new works”, but the process of transformation and cross-pollination was two-way (as it was in the work of Ives and Mahler too, not to mention Frank Zappa’s “conceptual continuity”). A case in point is Sequenza IXa for clarinet (here masterfully rendered by Carol Robinson) which derives from Chemins V, a work Berio withdrew shortly after its premiere. This Mode set represents the very first time in which all the Sequenze (even the “posthumous” ones, notably Stefano Scodanibbio’s excellent transcription for double bass of the cello Sequenza XIV) and the works for solo instruments have been gathered together in a single release. Listening to the whole thing in one go is difficult but not impossible, as Berio’s articulately bright writing highlights both the strengths and the less explored nuances of every instrument while maintaining an evident intelligibility, a consequence of the composer’s interest in popular traditions and themes he often loved to mix with more experimental and serial techniques. Virtuosity is a necessity, never mere technical showing off; according to Berio’s instructions some of these scores should be played sempre molto flessibile, quasi improvvisando (“always very flexible, almost improvising”), a good example being the majestic Fa-Si (tackled by Gary Verkade on the pipe organ). The performers, a veritable Who’s Who of great soloists including Irvine Arditti, Stuart Dempster, Rohan De Saram, Isabelle Ganz, Ulrich Krieger, Seth Josel and Aki Takahashi (to name but a few), contribute with heartfelt passion to the success of the project. Each Sequenza is introduced by actor Enzo Salomone reciting verses by Edoardo Sanguineti, one of Berio’s closest friends and collaborators.

Let’s try to sketch a path through this huge compendium. Sequenza VI for viola features a scintillating performance by Garth Knox, who executes the “formal study on repetition” with muscular brilliance, in a fabulous cross between Paganini and Jon Rose. A cycle of ten chords progressively expands until the twelve-tone chromatic field is reached, with outrageous tremolos leading to a more tranquil melodic exploration (which must come as enormous physical relief for the player). Sequenza VII for oboe was written with the help of its dedicatee Heinz Holliger, who presented Berio with a lot of alternative and extended techniques used in the “virtual polyphony” which was one of the composer’s stated objectives when working with monophonic instruments. Jacqueline Leclair applies her own touch of magic, sustained by a female vocal drone whispered in the background in another high-intensity moment of truth. Sequenza X for trumpet in C (played by William Forman) is a poignantly lyrical exploration of natural reverberation elicited by the trumpet’s waves from an amplified piano (the soloist is asked to play directly into the instrument), with seriously dramatic results. Sequenza XII for bassoon (another wonderful reading by Noriko Shimada) is, on a purely emotional level, one of the most exquisite listenings on offer here, its fantastic slow glissandi an impressive example of the virtuoso circular breathing needed to play this score. Gesti, which Feisst rightly describes as “a classic in contemporary recorder literature”, is indeed a fantastic concoction of instrument and voice interpreted with furious enthusiasm by Lucia Mense, while Chanson pour Pierre Boulez for cello, composed for its dedicatee’s 75th birthday, starts with Rohan De Saram playing a slow line that after a while mutates into a Tony Conrad-like beneficial electrocution, a short yet engrossing pleasure, not to mention a great birthday present.
Sequenza XI for guitar is a showcase for Seth Josel’s extraordinary digital dexterity, as every conceivable form of guitar-related fingering and technique derived from both flamenco and classical traditions is applied with as much vigour as surgical precision. Although it’s one of the longest tracks on offer, listening to its wood, flesh and metal is a pure joy, and not only for guitarists. The “folk” element that characterized many phases of Luciano Berio’s career is to the fore again in Stefan Hussong’s accordion playing on Sequenza XIII, which is one of the most accessible tracks, along with Sequenza IV for piano (Aki Takahashi). The spectacular theatre of voices performed by Isabelle Ganz in Sequenza III is typical Berio / Berberian matter, but noteworthy for its avoidance of the insufferable (at least for this writer) technical gadgetry usually associated with the female voice in contemporary music (much of which, ironically enough, was instigated by Berberian herself). Ganz’s rendition is just superb – and surprisingly sober, giving the work a real touch of class.

Listening to veritable masterpieces such as these one gets a true sense of fulfillment. It remains a mystery to me how presumably experienced listeners can still be seduced by and give credence to marginal phenomena like those mentioned at the beginning of this review. After many rewarding hours spent with The Complete Sequenzas, my rage at how things work in the music world grows more and more. At least I can console myself with the thought that Luciano Berio never read that particular article, and that he’s probably smiling with irony in the hereafter.