BBC Proms reviews

Prom 26: Berio: Coro; Weill: Kleine Dreigroschenmusik @ Royal Albert Hall, London

2 August 2005

Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

This late night Prom marked what would have been Luciano Berio’s 80th birthday, with Coro an auspicious choice to celebrate the occasion. However the work does not evoke the mood of pomp and circumstance far from it but it does celebrate a wide variety of musical cultures.

In order to make a full impact, Coro has to be experienced in a live environment. Berio’s ultra-precise scoring is for no fewer than eighty-four parts – forty voices coupled with forty instruments, then piano, electronic organ and percussion. Each vocalist sits with their allocated instrumentalist, creating a unique and spatial arrangement, fascinating on the eye.

For this performance each singer was amplified, which proved both a help and a hindrance, as it was sometimes difficult to get an accurate placement for some of the singers. Diction, however, was crystal clear. Berio’s textual sources range far and wide, from Polynesia to North and South America, from Hebrew to Croatian. They are however dominated by a single chilling refrain, extracted from Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra: “Venid a ver la sangre por las calles” (“Come and see the blood on the streets”). Here Berio takes full advantage of the sonic power available, introducing the words in fragmented form to begin with, powerful male voices above the instrumental texture, then gradually enlarging the sentence until it dominates the overall mood. In this performance it grabbed you by the throat each time, the sheer density of Berio’s writing overpowering.

Each singer duetted with their respective instrument, either separately or as part of the larger ensemble. Whether it was tenor and cello, or the extraordinary childish prattle of a Navaho Indian text between chattering soprano and violin, the ear, and then the eye, was drawn rapidly around the platform.

Somehow Diego Masson held all this together, only his arms moving as he gave rigid beats from the impressively weighty score. As the end came, and Neruda’s fragmented text was placed in a fuller context, the whispers of the choir hovered as if held on the wind inexorably, and with their passing n hour of continuous and intensely rewarding music was completed but not, you felt, emotionally satisfied.

An appropriate contrast was found in Kurt Weill’s sardonic suite from The Threepenny Opera, Masson leading the reduced Sinfonietta forces. This piece needs a much drier acoustic than the Albert Hall to make a full impact, but nevertheless Masson drew an affectionate reading. Polly’s Song walked at a slower pace than normal but was beautifully phrased, the Foxtrot swung nicely and the tricky Tango crossrhythms were well projected. The Finale brought triumph of a kind, its spirit an accurate barometer by which to read the evening’s musical content. The London Sinfonietta, as is so often the case, played superbly.

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