World Music

World Music: Omaggio: Berio Djivan Gasparyan / Tenores di Bitti / Kamkars
Queen Elizabeth Hall London

The Independent – United Kingdom;
May 04, 2004

Michael Church

THE TITLE indicated homage to the recently deceased Luciano Berio, but
the event reflected the homage he had paid to the folk music of North
America, France, Iran, Azerbaijan and the islands of the

We began with the folk songs he recomposed for his wife, Cathy
Berberian. Here they were sung by the mezzo Katalin Karolyi, who
handled two American ballads with sweet allure, swung jauntily south
to Armenia, hardened her voice to match the rough edges of a Sicilian
lament, and rang timbral changes for pungent songs from Sardinia and
the Auvergne. Did it matter that the words of the Aze rbaijani love
song which Berberian had originally collected were still
untranslatable? Of course not. Karolyi may not have Berberian’s
raunchiness, but this was a tour de force all the same, beautifully
abetted by musicians from the London Sinfonietta.

One thing Karolyi superbly demonstrated – for those who had forgotten
– was that a proper singer needs no amplification in the acoustically
excellent QEH. Nor do reed instruments, and when Djivan Gasparyan and
his two fellow-dudukists joined in via the stage mics we lost the
sonic intimacy Karolyi had built up. But their magic was still
irresistible: after a slow and meditative improvisation over his
friends’ drone, this Armenian master led them through dances and
laments. With its single-octave range, the apricot-wood duduk might
not be thought one of the world’s most expressive instruments, but
they gave the lie to this. Their slightly flattened harmonies set up
the yearning atmosphere we always associate with Armenia: the land
whose defining tragedy sent half its population into exile.

If this was music to dream to, what followed had us on the edge of our
seats: Berio’s “Naturale”, where viola and vestigial percussion
suffered plangent interruptions from the taped voice of a Sicilian
folk singer. Then we were in Sardinia, courtesy of four middle-aged
gents in matching brown outfits, who gave vent to the most
penetratingly nasal close-harmony I’ve ever heard. Once again,
unnecessary miking removed some of the poignancy, but these Tenores di
Bitti showed what drama could be extracted from minimal gear-changes
in key and intonation. It was a shame we weren’t told what their songs
were about.

Then it was playtime with that most congenial of Kurdish groups, the
Kamkars. Hassan Kamkar and his six children have made it their
mission to preserve the village music of Kurdish Iran, and their
hoof-drumming rhythms got the whole hall clapping along. And that
meant more than just the world-music fraternity, because the audience
was drawn from every kind of musical persuasion. This concert really
was what Radio 3 voguishly terms “boundary-crossing”.