REVIEW / Sounding the retreat from Utopia: David Fanning on Berio in orchestral mode with the Halle in Manchester's latest encounter with Luciano Berio

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This is all my fault,' Arnold Schoenberg once wrote, in rare agreement with the majority of concert-goers and critics. Luciano Berio, now nearly 70, might well survey the contemporary composition scene and conclude the same. Post- modern before the fact, his Sinfonia of 1967 opened up a Pandora's box whose consequences are still very much with us.

Perhaps it takes a programme like the one Berio has brought with him on his current visit to help us do just that. With the Halle at the Free Trade Hall on Thursday night he conducted the UK premiere of his revised Epiphanies, which for sheer ambition, passion, drama, and refinement of ear puts most other recent orchestral works to shame. The Halle played it with a precision of attack and range of colour that spoke volumes not just for Berio's conducting but also for their recent work with Kent Nagano.

Deconstructing the orchestra in standard avant-garde fashion is easy enough, but re- constructing it in the image of a unique inner world is quite another matter: the sign of a master. The revision process has entailed fixing the previously optional order of movements, and there is now a more transparent orchestration (though, with seven percussionists and large wind and brass sections, the impact is still colossal). Just about the only drawback to Epiphanies is that it takes a soprano of the exceptional polyglot agility and stage presence of the young Swedish-born Charlotte Hellekant to make it work.

She shone too in three of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder. Anyone who has heard the Baker / Barbirolli recording of these songs is spoilt for life and may not realise how much control they demand to bring them off. Orchestrally things were not so ideal on this occasion, but Hellekant's feeling for the texts was true and touching.

Mahler also came to mind, rather unexpectedly, in Berio's Rendering. This transcription- cum-commentary based on the surviving sketches for Schubert's 10th Symphony is in its way an even more remarkable achievement than Epiphanies. It is remarkable for the way very convincing-sounding Schubert repeatedly dissolves into a twilight zone where the same ideas are heard as if from the perspective of Jugendstil Vienna 80 years further on. And it is no less remarkable for the sheer plausibility of Berio's 'straight' orchestration for standard Schubert Unfinished orchestra (plus celesta for the dissolves). This respectful engagement with classical craftsmanship may indicate Berio's retreat from Utopia, but it is also an entry into a new sonic wonderland.