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24.1.04

Renzo Piano on Luciano Berio

Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, cofounder of the Studio di Fonologia Musicale and the new music journal Incontri Musicali, died in May last year. In an article (La merveilleuse inspiration d'un testament musical [The marvelous inspiration of a last will in music], January 23) in Le Monde, Renaud Machart reviews a concert on January 22 at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. The Orchestre de Paris, under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach, was joined by the Chorus of the Orchestre de Paris and the French Army Chorus in a program featuring the world premiere of Berio's final composition, Stanze, which was completed two weeks before his death. The piece was introduced that night by Berio's friend, the architect Renzo Piano:

The composer's friend, to whom the piece was dedicated, said some of those poetic lies that only "nonmusicians" can say. "Architecture is heavy and slow; music is lively and light." He also said that Berio, architect of sounds that he was, made him jealous. Renzo Piano invited the public to enter "Berio's palace," a sound palace made of rooms, "true rooms, with doors and windows, like the living spaces of a building," the composer wrote in a short note of explanation on this suite of poems for baritone, three male choruses, and orchestra (2002–2003).

For my part, I have to write, to write about a composition that Pierre Boulez describes, in the program, like a "real last will"; to write as if the composer had died after the creation of this work, to write like one always did, while Berio was alive, saying as exactly as possible what one was feeling, what one was thinking, right or wrong. Berio knew he was sick and knew that this would be his last composition. And in this composition, he did, quite simply, what he had almost never done: setting poetry to music, as so many composers before him had done. Like them, Berio accomplished a logical, fluid, intelligible act of prosody, without proceeding to that deconstructive work toward which, like so many other avant-garde composers, he had been inclined. Here there were no phonemes, or unrelated noises, as in the famous Sequenza for solo voice, from 1966, written for his first wife, the mezzo soprano Cathy Berberian. With Stanze, Berio rediscovered, after all those years, the marvelous inspiration of what remains probably one of his masterpieces and his most often played opus, the Folk Songs from 1964.

Stanze, however, is of a completely different texture, a completely different appeal, which is open to multiple "interpretations": at once a suite of orchestrated melodies, an operatic scene, a symphony of Mahlerian scope (with adagios and scherzo, in the section on a poem by the pianist Alfred Brendel), an echo chamber of varied idioms (the German of Paul Celan and Dan Pagis, the Italian of Edoardo Sanguinetti and Giorgio Caproni, the English of Alfred Brendel), a vast elegy crossed in a grotesque and Viennese leap, and completed on an icy text: "With immense and distant eyes, with foreheads cracked at the graves' edge, the dead will gather."
Machart is less impressed with the acoustics of the Théâtre Mogador ("one would have liked to hear these sounds clearly in a concert hall worthy of this name, in an acoustic that does not level out and destroy the rich perspectives of this music. But Paris had only a bad-sounding theater to offer for the final work of one of the greatest creators of the 20th century. Shame and misery.") or on the rest of the program ("We would rather remain discreet about the impression left by the Ciaccona [2002] of Marc-André Dalbavie, probably one of the weakest works by its brilliant composer.")

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