Magazine article The Spectator

They've Worn Well

Magazine article The Spectator

They've Worn Well

Article excerpt

So - Luciano Berio (1925-2003) - they called you 'Lucky Luciano' 'Rossini of the avant-garde', - another light out, the 'gaiety of the nations' depleted, no more sequenzas, no more wheeler-dealing; sadly I never met you; friends who did say you were quite a guy.

(with apologies to E. Jarvis Thrihb & others)

The once all-dominant radical-progressive wing of post-war European music is eroding fast. Luigi Nono died in 1990; the other two of its original 'Holy Trinity' survive as shadows of their former substantiality; Stockhausen's megalomaniac seven-night Licht makes as it nears completion an ever-feebler splash; Boulez conducts, hectors, composes, with palpable ennui. And the two poetic comedians who quite differently broke into, or out of, the ice-girt bulwarks of the ivory tower have reached the end of their marvellous adventures - Ligeti is mortally ill, Berio is mortally terminated.

He had begun so evidently as an experimental modernist as to assume quite early an honorary election to the 'Trinity'. When Nono declined into agitprop then beatific vacancy, Berio slid imperceptibly into his place even before his premature death. But the total serialism and electronics turned out to be fancy dress. Fun, play and sheer old-style musicality kept breaking in; above all in the 'impurity' of his manifest affection for and ability to use an ever-widening range of music from music's past. (Stockhausen has only done this for polemic purpose, as Hymnen, the huge phantasmagoria splintering national anthems from around the world; Boulez has altogether eschewed it.)

Married to Cathy Beberian, a singer who combined a delicious sense of many styles with the campy mischief of a great performance-artist, Berio both exploited and learnt from her talents, whether for parody and extravagance, or, as in the evergreen folksong arrangements, for 'simple, sensuous, passionate' directness that transcends artifice or artificiality.

These folksong settings make a way into his copious and intricately interpenetrating oeuvre. They take material from various cultures, accompanying them with a small, vivid ensemble in a vein of tender stringent essentiality that goes straight to the heart.

Then in Coro a much wider repertory of folk material - American Indian south and north, Polynesian, African, Persian, Hebrew, Croatian, Italian from Venice to Sicily - is counter-coupled with Pablo Neruda and laid out in complex elaboration for groups of singers interspaced amongst the reshuffled seating-plan of a very large orchestra. …

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