Luciano Berio: Laborintus 2. Christiane Legrand (soprano), Janette Baucomont (soprano), Claudine Meunier (contralto), Edoardo Sanguineti (speaker), Ensemble Musique Vivante, Chorale Expérimentale, dir. Berio. Harmonia Mundi “Musique d’abord” HMA 190764 (1987), no barcode then 3149021607649
Compiled HMX 290862 (no barcode) in 3-CD set Harmonia Mundi “Musique d’abord” HMX 290862.64 “Les Classiques du XXe siècle” (1997), barcode 794881403226 with Boulez: Domaines, Stockhausen: Aus den Sieben Tagen
reissued Harmonia Mundi “Musique d’abord” HMA 195764 (2000), barcode 794881508228:
Original publication 1969 Harmonia Mundi MV 34.764. Recorded at Studio Davout, Paris, recording date not indicated. For the original LP edition and links to others, see entry on Discogs.com (UK edition RCA SB 6848, US edition RCA LSC 3267)
Wild, disjointed, wordy, experimental, Italian, jazzy, poetic, and historical – a great piece!
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 20 April 2009, slightly revised for repost 11 January 2019
I’m not sure I should say so (they’ll never let me out of my mental asylum if they find out about this review!), but I love Berio’s Laborintus 2. It dates from 1965 and it is scored for 3 female voices, one speaker and a chorus of 8 (the traditional soprano-alto-tenor-baritone, but the score cryptically adds: actors, rather than singers), plus instrumental ensemble. It uses texts collated by the Italian writer Eduardo Sanguinetti (1930-2010, link will open new tab to his entry on Wikipedia), by Dante, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Sanguineti himself. The composer conceived it as a stage work: the composition’s entry on Universal’s catalog says that Laborintus 2 can be played as “theatrical event, story, allegory, documentation, pantomime etc in theatre, concert, TV, open air and so forth”, and fact is, it has been staged, but staging it would require from the director a wide stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is closer to a Hörspiel – a radio play, an opera for the ear rather than for the eye. I don’t have the score [2019 addition: a perusal score is now available online from Universal], but I suspect that the recording wasn’t played through but collated from various sessions and improvisations, and edited and pasted together. You even hear (and obviously Berio kept it on purpose), at the end of part 1 and the beginning of part 2, the performers’ comments as if caught “off the air”, including a “time to go to bed!” (on va se coucher!). There have been recent performances, mostly unstaged.
Although the liner notes provide no explanation of it, the very title points to the piece’s experimental nature: “Laborintus” is, I imagine, a concatenation of Labyrinth and Laboratory. To quote Berio’s presentation on the Universal website, “Thus, Laborintus II is not an opera but a music theatre work – that is, a work which, to paraphrase the words of the philosopher Ernst Bloch, accepts theatre as a laboratory “reduced” to the dimensions of performance, where we test theories and practices which can be used as experimental models of real life.” And thanks to Amazon customer Deryk Barker in December 2014 for suggesting that Berio numbered his Laborintus “2” (or “II” in Roman numeral as per the Universal entry) to distinguish it from Sanguineti’s 1956 collection of poems already titled Laborintus (and his first major work). From an interview of Sanguineti found online (my translation):
“The world is very complicated: my poetry tries to reflect that reality.
My first collection of poetry was called “Laborintus” because, according to me, the world is a labyrinth in which it is difficult to find one’s way.
In the same manner, poetry becomes a difficult, unclear journey…”
So, the music is pretty radical and experimental. The language is fully contemporary (and I mean 1960s contemporary, which makes it even more “contemporary” than today’s contemporary), but without any of the dryness often associated with serialism from the 1960s. It is wild, busy with seemingly disjointed and arbitrary events – some of them piercing and violent, some of them delicate and gossamer – that somehow coalesce into a seamless continuity. At times it verges on free jazz improvisations – and many members of the recording ensemble are indeed today more associated with jazz than with classical and contemporary music, such as clarinetist Michel Portal, percussionist Bernard Lubat, double-bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clarke and vocalist-soprano Christiane Legrand, a member of Mimi Perrin’s famous French “Double Six” Jazz vocal group and later of the original Swingle Singers, along with soprano Janette Baucomont (her first name was always spellt “Jeanette” on the Swingle Singers’ albums) and alto Claudine Meunier. In part 2 there is a part for tape, but I find it much better embedded into the instrumental texture, much less hackneyed and clichéd than much tape music from those years (or today).
Incidentally, Baucomont’s presence on the recording enables to date it before 1969: that’s the year she left the Swingle Singers, and was replaced by soprano Nicole Darde, starting with the album American Look. The copyright indication of 1970 on the CDs’ backcover is misleading. The original LP was published in 1969, as attested by the review published in the French magazine Harmonie of May 1969.
But beware: all those traits which make this piece so attractive to me – the wild disjointedness, the accumulation of events, the wordy hodge-podge of texts – are those, I suspect, that will make most listeners hate it. Two additional features I find especially lovable in Laborintus. The wonderful lyricism of its three female voices – and kudos to the three singers. And its marvelous Italian-ness – wordiness and all. It is great to have Eduardo Sanguineti himself as speaker. It all conjures memories of films of Antonioni, Fellini and you name `em.
True, those Harmonia Mundi bargain series didn’t offer much music (33-minutes here), no translation of text and, as already mentioned, liner notes that are not very informative. So try and find it cheap. This recording, made under the composer’s supervision, is history.
You can read here the begining of the review published in the British magazine Tempo No. 101 in 1972 (UK edition RCA SB 6848). And here’s the review in High Fidelity of August 1972 (US edition RCA LSC-3267):
There’s a more recent recording of Laborintus 2 which I haven’t heard, on Ermitage, by Ensemble Contrechamps directed by Giorgio Bernasconi, and whose speaker is Federico Sanguineti, Edoardo’s son, see entry on Discogs.com. You can hear it on YouTube. Federico’s voice is plainer and more anonymous than his father’s.