Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV
Various performers

Naxos 8.557661-3 (3 CDs)

Naxos and Mode have both released, nearly concurrently, recordings of the complete Sequenzas of Luciano Berio (1925-2003), an epoch-making series of sixteen works for solo instrument (including a couple arrangements) that spanned the entirety of Berio’s 45-year mature artistic career. Mode’s collection, which I have not heard, supplements the three discs of Sequenzas with a fourth containing the rest of Berio’s otherwise modest output for solo instruments; both of these new collections include the final piece in the collection, Sequenza XIV for cello, which had yet to be written when the other available “complete” set was released on Deutsche Grammophon in 1999.

That original collection featured soloists of the Ensemble InterContemporain, few of them household names (even relatively speaking) but all absolute masters of their instruments and of the lyrically-inflected postwar European idiom that the Sequenzas collectively inhabit. This new Naxos collection, recorded in Ontario between 1998 and 2004, features a number of Canadian musicians; most of them are unknown to me, but among the long list of contributors are such stars as pianist Boris Berman and trombonist Alain Trudel, along with soprano Tony Arnold, who will be a star herself in the near future.

In general””and in a review of a three-CD set comprising sixteen different soloists, generalities will have to do””these performances strike a gentler, more lyrical, smoother tone than their InterContemporain predecessors. Where the European players were incisive and rhythmically precise, Naxos’ performers are more concerned with the long line, sometimes at the expense of accuracy of rhythm, dynamics and accent. In short, the Naxos performances feel “lived in”; it seems as though these pieces are being seen as a previous generation’s property, worn and familiar, shock and rigor having been replaced by relaxed comprehension.

That sounds like a rather lukewarm characterization, but in most cases it is not meant to be. After all, Berio embarked upon this series with the intention of redefining virtuosity for a new aesthetic age, and through his own and others’ agency, that goal has been accomplished. Technical hurdles are no longer an issue in this repertoire, and while the interpretive philosophy reflected in the Ensemble Intercontemporain’s performances is certainly valid, it has no claim on exclusive authority.

In the best performances here, there is a sense that the musicians have brushed past the modernist gestural surface in search of the Italianate lyricism just beneath. And there are performances on this collection that stand up easily to the earlier recordings. Most particularly, Ken Munday’s rendition of Sequenza XII, for bassoon, was a revelation; the beautiful control across registers that Munday brings to this recalcitrant instrument is a wonder to hear. Also, Tony Arnold’s breathtaking Sequenza III for solo voice is the best performance of this most popular Sequenza that I have ever heard, decisively answering any critiques of this babbling and histrionic piece as a collection of vapid theatrical effects. In her hands it is no such thing. Instead, it is a touching and emotionally fraught monodrama, with intersecting layers of structural and textual significance that I have never heard brought forth and controlled so brilliantly.

So, in the end, it depends on what you want out of your reference set of Sequenzas. If you want to experience this heterogeneous collection of pieces as bracing modernist experiments””which they were at the time, at least in the first half of the series””the Deutsche Grammophon set is perhaps still the top recommendation. If, however, you prefer a more retrospective, perhaps more nuanced view, with lyrical and emotive properties brought to the fore, this Naxos collection will do just as well. Plus, it’s only half the price.

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