As a body of works for solo instruments, the series of Sequenzas written by Luciano Berio between 1958 and 2002 is without equal in the literature of late 20th century music. Though not the first recording of the complete Sequenzas - others have appeared on Deutsche Grammophone and Naxos - this four CD set, over ten years in the making, presents for the first time the final Sequenza XIV performed by its dedicatee, cellist Rohan De Saram, and the arrangement bassist Stefano Scodanibbio made of it a year after Berio's death in 2003. In addition to the 19 Sequenzas, the fourth disc also includes nine further works for solo instruments, ranging from the wild two minute harpsichord tour de force Rounds (1965) to the exquisite Chanson Pour Pierre Boulez (2000), recorded for the first time by De Saram, and also features Gesti, a sequenza in all but name written in 1966 for the Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Brüggen.
Though the Sequenzas represent benchmarks in terms of technical difficulty and notation, they are by no means exercise in virtuosity for its own sake. The fact Berio used them as a reservoir for numerous spin-off chamber pieces indicates how important they were to him as extensions of his own musical language. The complexity of Darmstadt-dra serialism was just a starting point to explore compositional techniques in Western and non-Western musics past and present. The influence of the Bach Chaconne (in Sequenza VIII for violin) is as important as flamenco rasgado technique in the guitar Sequenzas and Sri Lankan Kandyan drumming (in XIV). The diversity of the music is breathtaking, from the violent post-impressionism of Sequenza II (for harp) to the theatrical antics of III and V, the latter performed by its dedicatee, trombonist Stuart Dempster, and the awesome virtuosity of violinist Irvine Arditti (VIII) and bassoonist Noriko Shimada (XII).
But it's a credit both to Berio's skill as a composer and to the equally of the performers that works once considered well-nigh unplayable, having been tailored to incorporate the techniques of their dedicatees - notably vocalist Cathy Berberian (Sequenza III) and oboist Heinz Hollinger (VII) - can be performed with such precision by others. In accordance with Berio's wishes, each Sequenza is prefaced by a quotation from the poetry of Edoardo Sanguineti, read by Enzo Salamone, and the set includes a thorough essay by Sabine Feisst. An essential release.
--- Dan Warburton, The Wire, August 2006