Omaggio: Berio Djivan Gasparyan/Tenores di Bitti/Kamkars, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The title indicated homage to the recently deceased Luciano Berio, but the event reflected the homage he had paid to the folk music of North America, France, Iran, Azerbaijan and the islands of the Mediterranean.

The title indicated homage to the recently deceased Luciano Berio, but the event reflected the homage he had paid to the folk music of North America, France, Iran, Azerbaijan and the islands of the Mediterranean.

We began with the folk songs he recomposed for his wife, Cathy Berberian. Here they were sung by the mezzo Katalin Karolyi, who handled two American ballads with sweet allure, swung jauntily south to Armenia, hardened her voice to match the rough edges of a Sicilian lament, and rang timbral changes for pungent songs from Sardinia and the Auvergne. Did it matter that the words of the Azerbaijani love song which Berberian had originally collected were still untranslatable? Of course not. Karolyi may not have Berberian's raunchiness, but this was a tour de force all the same, beautifully abetted by musicians from the London Sinfonietta.

One thing Karolyi superbly demonstrated - for those who had forgotten - was that a proper singer needs no amplification in the acoustically excellent QEH. Nor do reed instruments, and when Djivan Gasparyan and his two fellow-dudukists joined in via the stage mics we lost the sonic intimacy Karolyi had built up. But their magic was still irresistible: after a slow and meditative improvisation over his friends' drone, this Armenian master led them through dances and laments. With its single-octave range, the apricot-wood duduk might not be thought one of the world's most expressive instruments, but they gave the lie to this. Their slightly flattened harmonies set up the yearning atmosphere we always associate with Armenia: the land whose defining tragedy sent half its population into exile.

If this was music to dream to, what followed had us on the edge of our seats: Berio's "Naturale", where viola and vestigial percussion suffered plangent interruptions from the taped voice of a Sicilian folk singer. Then we were in Sardinia, courtesy of four middle-aged gents in matching brown outfits, who gave vent to the most penetratingly nasal close-harmony I've ever heard. Once again, unnecessary miking removed some of the poignancy, but these Tenores di Bitti showed what drama could be extracted from minimal gear-changes in key and intonation. It was a shame we weren't told what their songs were about.

Then it was playtime with that most congenial of Kurdish groups, the Kamkars. Hassan Kamkar and his six children have made it their mission to preserve the village music of Kurdish Iran, and their hoof-drumming rhythms got the whole hall clapping along. And that meant more than just the world-music fraternity, because the audience was drawn from every kind of musical persuasion. This concert really was what Radio 3 voguishly terms "boundary-crossing".

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