On Sunday 21 January the American-Dutch violinist Joseph Puglia will perform all 34 of Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam. He’ll play together with 18 different violinists ranging from students to amateurs, including children who boast half size violins. Puglia is first violinist of Asko|Schönberg and a passionate advocate of contemporary music. With this ensemble he premièred the violin concerto Roads to Everywhere the Dutch composer Joey Roukens composed for him in 2016.
That same year Puglia released his first solo cd, in the famed series ‘Ladder of Escape’ of the record label Attaca. It is entirely dedicated to Berio and opens with the 34 Duetti, a series of miniatures dedicated to friends and composers who Berio admired. Each piece tells its own story and uses different techniques; the thirty-four portraits also have an educational function. Berio’s idea was for them to be performed by a combination of professionals and young musicians, as Puglia does both on the cd and during his concert in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.
In some duets, the difficulty of the two parts varies considerably. In number #17, ‘Leonardo Pinzauti’, for example, one violinist only plays a scale, while the other weaves graceful lines through it. On the cd Puglia performs it together with his eight-year-old pupil Sebastian Cynn, who ardently saws away at his violin, giving the music a disarming fragility. Puglia’s oldest partner is Vera Beths, with whom he plays number #6, named after Berio’s colleague Bruno Maderna. Berio catches his joyous personality with playful music, at times evoking a mangled waltz.
Arguably the most beautiful duet is number #20, ‘Edoardo Sanguineti’, which concludes the cycle. At Berio’s request, the second part is played by an orchestra of violins. Puglia performs it with students of the NJO Summer Academy and colleagues such as Peter Brunt and Emmy Storms. For a moment you think you’ve ended up in one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but soon the exhilarating patterns make way for more introverted lines, interspersed with silences.
Anyone who dedicates a CD to Berio cannot ignore his famous Sequenze, solo pieces in which he explores the possibilities of instruments to the extreme. Sequenza VIII was composed in 1976 for the violinist Carlo Chiarappa. It is based on two tones (A and B), which form the starting point for an immersive exploration of the violin. Ranging from sweet cantilenas to ferocious thumping; from hushed flageolets to swirling, seemingly polyphonic loops. Puglia’s performance is flawless and seemingly effortless, with an impressively refined dynamic and audible pleasure.
The two other pieces on the CD are also very worthwhile. The pianist Ellen Corver proves to be an empathetic accompanist in Due pezzi per violino e pianoforte. The spirited, almost terrifying Corale su Sequenza VIII makes for a deeply exciting listening experience in the combination with Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht.
With this CD Joseph Puglia presents a highly convincing business card, proving once more that ‘modern’ music is not a priori dry and unapproachable, but can be passionate and emotional. Undoubtedly the live experience will be even more exhilarating.