Classical: Monteverdi, microtones and a message in a bottle

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the oddities of the 20th century has been that Italian music - for 200 years dominated by opera and anti-radicalism - became concertised and radical almost overnight after Puccini's death in 1924.

In fact, as this first concert in the BBC's mini Italia festival reminded us in John Pickard's transcription of Monteverdi's Orfeo/Vesperstoccata, long before that Italy had been the epicentre of the dangerously modern. A pity perhaps that the first post-Verdian strings of this same spirit of futurism remain undetected by the BBC's Italia seismograph - though admittedly the musical done by that movement was slight and evanescent, to put it mildly. One might wish an earthquake on Glacinto Sceisi's horrible microtonal Anahit, through which the violinist David Alberman and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under George Benjamin picked their way with understandable caution. But the rest of Thursday's programme was more auspicious, and it produced at least one major find.

This was Dallapiccola's exquisite Tre Laudi, a proto-serial piece from the late Thirties which sets medieval religious poems, the programme note hinted (we were not offered the actual texts), in a spirit of covert political protest. It is an interesting thought that Mussolini was responsible for radicalising Italian music before the war. But the Tre Laudi are striking less as a message in a bottle than for the sheer refinement of their scoring for a 13-piece ensemble that might almost have given Britten the idea for his postwar chamber operas. They were sung with charm and much intensity by Luisa Casteliani.

The other important work was Berio's recent clarinet-viola concerto, Alternatim, thinned down orchestrally since its Amsterdam premiere 18 months ago but still a somewhat involved challenge to the problems of balance posed by anything with a solo viola in it. In fact Alternatim was commissioned by the clarinetist Paul Meyer, and maybe Berio intended the wind soloist to dominate, as it still does. But the geography of the piece, with its antiphonal violins and its tracery of polyphonies radiating out from each soloist, contradicts this in any case rather unlikely thought.

It seems more probable that Berio simply got caught up with the fascinating inner life of his textures - enriched by wind multiphonics and discreet string detunings (not at all a la Scelsi) - and slightly lost track of the 25-minute form, which remains flat and a bit featureless. For the attentive ear, Alternatim, like all Berio, is a marvellous listen, but it remains inchoate as a piece - or so it seemed to me from a 1997 tape and then Thursday's apparently very smooth and painstaking performance by Meyer and Steven Burnard (the BBC NOW's principal viola), conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.