Luciano Berio / Cathy Berberbian
Sequenza VI, Chemins II/III, Epifanie, Folk Songs
“She has a unique witches’ Sabbath of sounds…” Darius Milhaud
Indeed, a unique witches’ Sabbath of sounds and Ms. Berberian uses them to full effect on “Folk Songs” the main reason I was so excited to find this lovely boxed collection. The other is its led by the composer himself, Luciano Berio who was also Ms. Berberian’s husband when he arranged these ‘Folk Songs’ in 1964 just for her. “Folk Songs” was originally scored for voice and seven instruments (voice, flute, clarinet, harp, viola, cello, and percussion) and that’s how it’s presented here. They were also arranged for large orchestra by Berio in 1973.
“In this suite, those who know Berio as avante-garde composer ranking with Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen will discover him in unaccustomedly light mood.”
So this is what Berio-lite sounds like? Contrary to the title, these are not all strictly speaking folk songs – “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (Nina Simone’s version is also splendid) and “I Wonder as I Wander” were written by Kentucky folk singer and composer John Jacob Niles and Berio himself wrote two others. The liner notes claim that Berio wrote these songs for Berberbian but some wise-assed scholars point out that this would have been difficult seeing as he didn’t meet her until two years after he wrote them. Ah, love has the power to transcend time or re-write history or both.
One thing that ties most of these 11 songs from the United States, France, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan together, beyond Berio and Berberian, is love. Crazy love, mad love, passionate I’m outta my head (over you) love. And its consequences and contradictions “he with no spouse seeks one, and he with one wishes he had none” from Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (not to mention the fact that Berio and Berberian’s marriage was nearly over by the time they first performed this piece in public).
Berberian discovered the last song “Azerbaijan Love Song” herself on an old 78rpm record which she transcribed by sound since its mainly sung in Azerbaijani a language she didn’t speak. There are many things to love about this record including the mad love it portrays so madly.
“Lalalalala…Love makes even the wisest mad, and he who loves most has least judgment. The greater love is the greater fool.” from Berio’s self-penned Folk Song “Ballo”
But this music isn’t for everyone – what is – and some prefer other performances of Berio’s “Folk Songs”. I have a few including Dawn Upshaw’s on the CD Osvaldo Golijov: Ayreon [Deutsche Grammophon B000ASDG9E] and Jard Van Nes with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Richard Chailly [London 425 832-2]. While I enjoy these as well, I wouldn’t recommend passing the Berio / Berberian by. You may have to set aside some baggage to fully immerse yourself but as I see it that’s our only job as listeners.