The Elements of Berio

Luciano Berio has gained a reputation as being one of the more extreme contemporary composers. His foray into electronic music early in his career has seen him aligned with the likes of Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez, but there is more to this Italian composer than first impressions suggest. Born in 1925 into a musical family, he grew up learning to play the piano and was participating in his father's chamber music evenings by the age of nine. During World War II he was conscripted into the army, but on his first day of training suffered a hand injury when a gun exploded in his hands, an accident which would ruin his chances of being a pianist. When the War ended, he moved to Milan to study composition and conducting, learning with Giorgio Federico Ghedini and Carlo Maria Giulini respectively. Moving from a small country town to the city opened Berio's eyes to music he had not previously encountered, including Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire which baffled him at first.

During a visit to America in 1952, Berio was present at the first concert on American soil in which electronic music was performed. Inspired by this experience and filled with enthusiasm for this new genre of music, he set up the Studio de Fonologia when he returned to Europe , a studio for composers to work on electronic music attracted interest from the likes of Stockhausen, Cage and many others. The late 1950s saw him move away from the electronic media and return to writing for instruments. It was during this time that he wrote the first of his famous Sequenzas, for flute in 1958. He would go on to write fourteen Sequenzas, each one written for a different solo instrument. Not only were they a challenge of virtuosity but also "sensibility and intelligence." While still heavily serial in their compositional language, Berio was headed back towards a semblance of tonality, a quality that from 1971 appeared fleetingly in his music. Berio's belief that a composition is an ever evolving organism is best demonstrated in the way he appropriated his own and others works, adding new layers to a pre-existing core to create new perspectives. He turned his Sequenzas into a series of Chemins, his chamber work O King into a work for orchestra and vocal ensemble, and even borrowed a movement of Mahler's Second Symphony for his Sinfonia. He also arranged works by Purcell, Verdi, Boccherini, Puccini and even put his own twist on a few of the Beatles' hits.

Berio's early experiences with electronic music left a lasting impression on his compositional style: the sonic possibilities of each instrument or voice. When writing for voice in particular, Berio is highly concerned with the sound each vowel or consonant makes when sung, and is therefore very particular in his notation about the duration of these sounds. While other composers married text and music together to give the text greater meaning and illustration, Berio manipulated language and its sounds to distance them from their associated meanings and provide the sonic landscapes he desired. This fascination with sound was something he carried into instrumental writing as well, as he explores the possibilities of an instrument, resulting in very specific instructions for performers. Whilst the 6 Encores for piano don't explore the instrument with extended techniques, Berio's use of very detailed dynamic, pedal and rhythmic notation often sees the piano transformed into an instrument of sound rather than of harmony.

The 6 Encores for piano give a fascinating overview of Berio's compositional progression. Written between 1965 and 1990, the set of 6 short pieces encapsulate the composer's compositional language at each point. The first two pieces in the set, Brin and Leaf (1990), are both sparse, and explore the sonic possibilities of the piano through the use of sustained chords and resonance. For someone not familiar with the set, they might be excused for thinking the third piece, Wasserklavier (1965), was written by Brahms rather than Berio. Its thick, chordal texture and sorrowful melody seems quite out of place in the set, yet it is a reminder of the composer's grounding in tonal harmonic language. The final three pieces in the set, Erdenklavier (1969), Luftklavier (1985) and (1989) all depict the elements after which they are titled: earth, air and fire, with the final two pieces predicably being technically challenging, yet incredibly effective in their writing.

Full-length concert: Luciano Berio (arr.): "Loosin Yelav" from Folk Songs for mezzo-soprano and seven instruments / Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano · Sir Simon Rattle, conductor · Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker / Recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie, 29 October 2011 The Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall: Subscribe to our newsletter: Website of the Berliner Philharmoniker: