Some composers are caught unawares by death, whereas others palpably write their final utterances. Luciano Berio belongs to the latter group. In the first full-scale symphony concert of the South Bank's "Omaggio" series, the programme was dominated by Berio's last work, Stanze.
The piece received a posthumous world premiere three months ago in Paris; this was its UK premiere. Berio writes that in using the word stanza, he is thinking not in terms of poetic composition but "actual rooms [stanze] that have doors and windows". Further: "The idea of God is present in different situations, mental rooms." These stanze, inspired by poems, stand for five interpretations of God. This is not a work by a man going peacefully to his Maker. Scored for solo baritone, three male choirs and orchestra, the piece is pervaded by darkness, bitterness and irony.
In Berio's setting of Paul Celan's "Tenebrae", the word "Herr", or "Lord", is anchored to a repeated pitch at the bottom of the vocal register, as though even if the voice is permitted to float higher, its destiny is always down. Only once is it uttered mid-register, with a chilling, accented forte.
Giorgio Caprioni's poem "The Ceremonious Traveller's Farewell" is a metaphor for death, a train journey where the terrified traveller is uncertain of everything. In the Edoardo Sanguineti setting, the voice is reduced to a bitter parlando, ending threateningly with: "Don't add anything, if you speak". Alfred Brendel ironically captures the sick Viennese obsession with the polka, allowing Berio to ape both Pierrot Lunaire and Johann Strauss and, briefly, to lighten the mood.
That Berio's God is no Christian God is clear from his choice of final poem, "The Battle", by the Israeli poet Dan Pagis, where any plea for redemption is denied: "The dead were assembled at the edge of the trenches... Who knew who was cursed and who blessed in the burning dust?" François Le Roux gave a deeply committed performance, strongly projecting the disturbing words.
The other major work in the programme was Solo, for trombone and orchestra. The ineffable Christian Lindberg gave a riveting performance: his strength and purity of sound is astonishing. And congratulations, too, to the orchestral "opposite number" with whom he jousts. Such virtuosity is a fitting homage to any composer.
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