Francesco Tristano Gives Us a Compactly Comprehensive Berio Compendium

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"Complete works" albums, even those centering on music written for one instrument, are usually sprawling box sets that often double as doorstops. Odd, then, that Luciano Berio's complete works for piano fit onto one single disc. More contradictory still is finding that 80-minute album to be representative of the composer's decades-long career.

Yet Berio was just that sort of an iconoclast who, in spite of having a wide-ranging canon at the time of his death in 2003 at the age of 77, could (intentionally or otherwise) distill his life’s work into six pieces written for the piano. His 1947 Petite Suite, written at 22, was in fact the first work to receive a public performance. Likewise, he wrote his epic, half-hour Sonata in 2001 at the age of 76.

These works, and those that came in between, are representative of Berio’s singular style, that of a man who learned all the rules and then proceeded to break them. Berio identified as a serialist, coming out of the school of Stockhausen or Boulez. Yet while repetition is anathema to that school of composition, that didn’t stop Berio from incorporating recurring moments into his works—such as a familiar B-flat that kicks off and continually rears its head in his Sonata. While this simple motif lays out the foundation for the work, however, its repetitions come wrapped up in that Baroque ideal of making each reiteration seem fresh, unfamiliar and new.

And that’s another Berio trademark that runs rampant through his piano literature: Here was a composer not only obsessed with pushing music to its furthest reaches in the name of creating new sounds, but also fervently enamored of the works of the past (not for nothing did he compose works to fit operas by both Puccini and Mozart). The nods to Mahler and Ravel, Prokofiev and Webern, are moments of homage to those who paved the way for Berio and his kind, also giving Berio a simultaneous appeal to both the head and the heart.

In his latest work for Piano Classics, the Luxembourg-born composer and pianist Francesco Tristano is an apt candidate to record this compendium, specializing as he does in both Baroque and contemporary music. In these breathless recordings of barely-there works, he characterizes the piano as Berio’s lover, life partner and closest confidante; an instrument privy to the composer’s most personal meditations conveyed while writing other works over the course of the 20th Century.

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