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In Luciano Berio’s music, an old notation urging new expression

On Jan. 15, pianist Donald Berman performs at the Longy School of Music, his first recital there as a member of the faculty. True to Berman’s penchant for combining old and new, he will pair two Barcarolles by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) with “Luftklavier” and “Wasserklavier,” more modern (and modernistic) sketches by Luciano Berio (1925-2003). “Wasserklavier” assembles additional venerable company: The piece, a quiet, moody dismantling of its F-minor tonality, was seeded by motives borrowed from late works of Johannes Brahms and Franz Schubert. The piece’s expression, however, is almost completely limited to one comparatively modern, appropriately ambiguous bit of notation: the tenuto mark.

In the musical lexicon, “tenuto” (meaning to sustain, or hold) is one of the oldest instructions, with variations dating back to medieval plainchant. The actual mark, though — a short horizontal line over a note — only really came into use in the 19th century. From the beginning, its meaning was manifold. In string music, it could tell the player to hold a note for its full value, a holdover from older, customarily detached styles of performance. It also figured in vocal music, but as an indication to hold the note even longer than its given value. In keyboard music, it could mean extra time, or extra emphasis of mass and volume — or both. Brass and woodwind players saw it and modified their tongue attack, or breath, or phrasing. And sometimes it was merely an expressive boost: “a clinging, soulful accent,” one reference book called it; “every tone strongly individualized,” said another.


It also was adjectival, added to other marks to adjust their weight or length. There are even places where the mark seems to have rushed into a previously unnoticed notational vacuum — witness its use to indicate portato, when a string player stresses a note without changing the direction of the bow. Brahms, a notational conservative, was particularly irked by that one; he himself almost never used the tenuto mark.

Berio was fond of it, though, using the mark to reveal melodic connections and prominence among his often complex, wide-ranging musical textures. Berio’s tenuti also reflect modern exploitation of the expressive gap between score and performer. In “Wasserklavier,” the mark highlights those motives most reminiscent of the piece’s source materials, whether glinting over the music or enveloped within it. But are they gentle echoes, affecting memories, or quietly vengeful ghosts? It’s left to the player where — and how — to draw the line.


Donald Berman plays Berio, Fauré, Wheeler, and Ives at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge, on Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. Suggested donation: $10-$20. www.longy.edu

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.