Berio: Six Encores

performed by Andrea Lucchesini

(cover image by Aaron Blanco Tejedor)

Berio’s Encores are relatively short pieces composed over a three decades, and provide a pretty wide-ranging vocabulary for the performer. For the brevity of the individual pieces, they provide a really wonderful example of what Berio was capable of.

As the title states, there are six pieces, as follows, with the shortest just over a minute (in Lucchesini’s reading) and longest (final two) at a little over three minutes each:

  1. Brin
  2. Leaf
  3. Wasserklavier
  4. Erdenklavier
  5. Luftklavier
  6. Feuerklavier 

The first two pieces were the last to be composed, in 1990, and the earliest, Wasserklavier (‘water piano’) was completed in 1965. Erdenklavier (earth) dates from 1969, Luft- (air) in ’85, and Feuer- (fire) in 1989.

Four of the encores are dedicated to the four elements of nature – Water, Earth, Air and Fire, named in German as Wasserklavier, Erdenklavier Luftklavier and Feuerklavier; the other two, Brin and Leaf, are the epigraphic miniatures which symbolize the passage of an ephemeral entity. All of the Six Encores illustrate the spiritual visualization of scenic elements and depict a precise trajectory of their imagery stimulating listeners with improvisatory spontaneity mixed with stylistic logical calculation.

That may sound a little… hokey; it’s very flowery language for what really can be quite simple, straightforward visualizations. It comes from here.

I heard Wasserklavier on Hélène Grimaud’s recital program when she was here a few years ago, and in the context of the ‘water’ theme of the program (also including works by Ravel, Debussy, Takemitsu and Albeniz, among others), Berio’s, the first on the program, was perfectly wonderful, nothing like what you may wince for when hearing Berio’s name, if you know it and associate him with Darmstadt and all the rest. Really beautiful.

But first things first. Brin tells us immediately that despite the title of this set, these are not (at least not all of them) the Chopin-etude-type showy encores. It reminds me of Boulez’s Douze Notations (1, 7 or 8) for its liquidity and sparse nature. Its stillness is intoxicating, sort of a prologue to this set, I think, although the atmosphere is captivating entirely on its own.

Leaf, though, is much more chirpy, and one may think more of the birds in the leaves than the leaves themselves. It’s busy, and I’m sure it’s a challenging piece for the performer, but it is also somewhat nebulous, ephemeral in its nature, albeit with a few almost stabbing gestures for a climax.

With the opening gestures of Wasserklavier, we are immediately, conspicuously in a different era, almost a different composer, it seems like. This so easily conveys the image, the spirit, of softness, of flowing, of clarity, and is so refined and pianistic. It was a wonderful opening to Grimaud’s recital with this very same theme.

In contrast with it, though, while Grimaud went on to explore the aqueous theme, Berio moves to earth. It is the shortest of the set (in Lucchesini’s recording), and while it still has a warmth to it, it’s firmer, more solid in texture, dryer, in the figurative sense, but also with trickling, rolling gestures.

Luftklavier is the longest of the set, and does seem from the get go to be airborne, to float off the surface of the earth. This is certainly the showiest, most virtuosic thing yet, more along the lines of the typical encore you’d expect at a recital. It blusters and blows, and the unrelenting repeated notes in places feel like a persistent wind in your face; this texture, in fact, the entire atmosphere, reminds me of the intensity and devilish difficulty of Ravel’s Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit. It’s breathtaking!

Feuerklavier begins with much the same texture, but now flickers, warms quickly, and seeming related in a sense to the previous movement, if you want to make the banal connection between air (the need for oxygen) and fire, but the use of the piano here is again more akin to Boulez (of the second symphony), without being that relentless. That being said, this piece I’m sure must be absurdly difficult, which of course makes it exciting, and how much more so when you see it performed. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but it rounds out Berio’s set, approaching the composition date of Brin and Leaf, with a lively and enjoyable image that ends quietly.

As challenging as these pieces must be for the performer, to me, they’re an excellent example of how serious, complex, modern music is not by definition alienating and incomprehensible. Berio gives us music that we can feel, and think about, and enjoy, as vivid a musical imagery as we would get from Ravel or Debussy, and not the slightest bit derivative. Enjoy that.

This ends our petite piano series, and I don’t think we’ll do a review, just because I wasn’t proving any point with contrasts or surveys like with French composers or anything, but we’ve got something entirely different coming up Thursday, and then more piano music for almost all of August, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Berio: Six Encores

  1. Berio’s piano music is outright cool! Did you know that he wanted to become a pianist, but shot himself in the hand during his military service? He had to abandon his dream and became a composer!

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