Riveting and playful text experiments (Berio CD)


Stories: Harmonia Mundi HMU 807527:

Prima le parole: riveting and playful text experiments from the Theatre of Voices.

In the post-war years of severe, avant-garde experimentation, it was music made with the human voice that was unafraid to embrace humour and joie de vivre. English choral adventurer Paul Hillier describes the spoken-word, sung, screamed and belched works (composed between 1940 and 1980) on this eclectic disc as “pieces [that] tell a story… but avoid getting to the point”. Or to take a leaf out of John Cage’s philosophy book: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”.

Literature buffs will get a kick out of Cage’s rhythmic, irritatingly catchy Story, a setting of Gertrude Stein’s Dr Seuss-esque children’s verse, “Once upon a time the world was round/and you could go on it around and around,” which pings around in fragmented repetitions as five vocalists revel in the collapse of language. The full effect is closely miked and rendered powerfully in SACD sound.

Looming large on the Lichtenstein-style front cover is Cathy Berberian, Berio’s first wife and a singer-actor, who championed unusual techniques and presides over the spirit of the album as fairy godmother. Her Stripsody is the most versatile and virtuosic piece here, a “Pop Art aria” exploring the onomatopoeic world of comic strips – “Vrrop”, “Yowee”, “Swarsh”etc.

Readers would be forgiven for expecting an orgy of meaningless sound, but the pitch-perfect discipline of the aptly-named Theatre of Voices is astounding, particularly in Berio’s epic a cappella pastiche A Ronne, where multilingual nonsense poetry blooms into lush madrigals and the hysteria of operatic warm-ups. I dare you to sing along.

Melissa Lesnie