Italian composer Luciano Berio is perhaps best known for his large-scale 1969 piece Sinfonia. Scored for orchestra and voices, the work’s third movement is a post-modern melting pot of disparate musical and literary references; centred around a quote from Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the movement flourishes into an intricate, and often humorous, collage of musical “samples” that, to the modern listener, eerily foreshadows the dense bricolage of late 1980s hip hop production. Completed in 1977, Berio’s longest concert work, Coro, likewise comprises an intertextual web of references, yet this later piece is an altogether sterner prospect, devoid of the irreverent playfulness that characterised Sinfonia.
Coro is scored for a large ensemble — consisting of forty-four instrumentalists and forty singers — and its libretto comprises a variety of texts, mostly taken from the folk traditions of a range of different cultures. Yet, rather than pursuing the amusing juxtapositions of Sinfonia, Berio integrates this diverse array of source material into a mosaic of abstracted human expression; displaying his fascination with the theories of French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, Berio constructs, as John Fallas has called it, “a structuralist matrix of words and themes” (“woman, red, dance, song, death…”) which take on increasingly nuanced meanings as the piece progresses. Based as it is around such brief snippets of text, Coro proceeds as a series of miniatures (thirty-one all told) which collide in an erratic and volatile stream of consciousness. Yet, despite the absence of an obvious overarching structure, there are a number of elements deployed to prevent the music from spinning off into incomprehensibility; the piano is often foregrounded, acting as a guide through the work’s labyrinthine design, and a recurring text (“venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”, taken from the poetry of Pablo Neruda) is used to signpost key moments in the piece. Certainly, Coro is overwhelming and disorienting but never excessively so: there is a communicative thrust lurking beneath its chaotic multiplicity.
In live performances of the work, each of Coro’s forty singers is situated next to an instrumentalist, integrating the traditionally segregated entities of orchestra and choir. As the piece progresses, this blurring of boundaries takes on a symbolic function, a visual representation of Coro’s erosion of the binary categories that frame musical perception. Through the sophisticated interplay of the voices and instruments, intertwined as a single body, Coro glides seamlessly between the intimate and the expansive. At the opening of the piece, an elegant duet for soprano and piano is gradually enveloped in a mesh of competing melodic voices; the once imminent sounds receding into the distance, obscured behind a dense fog of urgent expression. Indeed, throughout the entirety of Coro, singular melodic lines bleed together to form vast harmonic blocks, accumulating into colossal, static clouds of sound as individual voices become subsumed completely, inseparable from the resultant outpouring. As such, this is a piece exploring the viability of intense individual expression within the bewildering chaos and noise of the modern world: a theme that finds little resolution in the midst of Coro’s ambiguous and heady swirl of sound.
Below is a recording of Coro accompanied by a brief listening guide.
Coro is segmented into thirty-one distinct passages, although these miniatures can be heard to combine into three larger sections.
The first section (until 18:43) opens with a stately duet for soprano and piano, gradually joined by other vocalists. A sudden orchestral outburst at 4:34 introduces the Pablo Neruda text to which the piece will return on a number of occasions. Only a snippet is heard at this point, but the full text is stated later at 8:40, following another orchestral tutti: “venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”. The section closes with a hypnotic, rhythmically vitalised section beginning at 14:50, interrupted midway (15:54-16:18) by another statement of the Neruda text.
The second section (18:43-41:13) begins with another statement of “venid a ver la sangre” before opening out into an intimate duet between tenor and cello at 19:07. A melancholic alto, joined by piano and woodwinds (21:35-22:22), introduces another rhythmic section which expands ever outwards from the insistent piano figure at its foundation. Listen out for the eccentric vocal flourishes beginning at 25:20 and the metronomic percussion that anchors the expressive, meandering melodic lines at both 34:46-36:00 and 38:15-39:18.
The final section (from 41:13) closes Coro in enigmatic fashion, allowing the piece to recede into ambiguity rather than providing any sense of closure. Opening with an elegant a cappella passage, the section draws to a close as the almost drunken expressions in the brass (52:00-52:50) melt away into the muted sigh of the Coro’s final moments.
The recording above is available on the Brilliant Classics label, conducted by Berio himself and performed by the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Another fine recording is conducted by Leif Segerstam, released on Orfeo D’Or label.
If Coro presents something of an uncompromising introduction to this seminal composer, Berio’s numerous concertos provide more forgiving entry-points into his sound-world; the piano concerto Points on a curve to find (1974) and the violin concerto Corale (1981) both come highly recommended. For another work exploring the simultaneously intimate and expansive potential of different vocal groupings, try György Ligeti’s Requiem (1965).
Artwork: Ochre and Black, Adolph Gottlieb
by Thomas May