London Sinfonietta/Diego Masson, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

3.00

Entitled
Omaggio and running to the end of the month, this major retrospective of the work of Luciano Berio on the South Bank, in the Royal Academy of Music and at the Italian Institute, was originally projected in his honour. Now it unfolds in his memory. But Berio played a major role in its planning before his death last May, and it was his own suggestion that the London Sinfonietta should open the festival in a programme comprising his three string concertos.

Entitled Omaggio and running to the end of the month, this major retrospective of the work of Luciano Berio on the South Bank, in the Royal Academy of Music and at the Italian Institute, was originally projected in his honour. Now it unfolds in his memory. But Berio played a major role in its planning before his death last May, and it was his own suggestion that the London Sinfonietta should open the festival in a programme comprising his three string concertos.

Not that any of them is entitled "concerto". Commissioned in 1976 for Rostropovich and based upon fragments of Russian revolutionary songs, "Ritorno degli snovidenia" for cello and orchestra, laments the betrayal of idealism by history. By contrast, Chorale for violin, two horns and strings (1981) is a more abstract expansion of Berio's solo violin Sequenza VIII, while Voci for viola and elaborately sub-divided ensembles (1984) is a kind of evocation of the life and landscape of Sicily drawn from recordings of its folklore.

What the three works share is a tendency to sustain continuity though a succession of long-held nodal-pitches around which Berio proceeds to spin the most complex and exquisite textures through his exceptional ear for instrumental blendings. All three concertos are solo-led from the start, though in very different ways.

It fell to Anssi Karttunen, the Sinfonietta's poetic principle cello, to launch the entire festival with the tender, tentative solo line that gradually generates the long dream-like first half of Ritorno degli snovidenia. The scudding momentum this eventually breaks into and the implacable chords it comes up against near the end were no less authoritatively directed by Diego Masson, whose expert and loving guidance of the concert betrayed no sign that he had been summoned to replace the advertised conductor at a late stage.

Cleo Gould, the Sinfonietta's fiery leader, next pitched into the slow, grinding pulsations that galvanize Chorale into action, though perhaps the most memorable stretch of the work is its evocative final dissolution into nocturnal trills and rustlings. After this, the rude, skirling upbeat to Voci came as a return to the real world; the more so as the great violist and peerless interpreter of this particular score, Kim Kashkashian, was here to play it - no less powerful of tone and touching of inflection than in her magnificent recording on the ECM label.

With its layout of soloist, surrounded by chamber orchestra, in turn surrounded by three percussionists and yet another chamber orchestra, this is one of Berio's most fascinating studies in sonorous perspective. It is also a score that breaks into more roving harmony and invention towards the end - a welcome departure in an evening of drones and saturated sounds.

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