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Berkeley and Benjamin piano music played Colin Horsley and Lamar Crowson
CD 1
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Piano Sonata in A Major Op.20 (1945) [23:35]
Six Preludes Op.23 (1944) [11:36]
Scherzo in D Major Op. 32 No. 2 (1949) [2:11]
Impromptu in G Minor Op. 7 No. 1 [1:50]
Concert Study in E-flat Op.48 No. 2 (1955) [2:33]
Concert Studies Nos. 2, 3, 4 Op. 14 (1940) [7:38]
Colin Horsley (piano)
CD 2
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Pastorale, Arioso and Finale (1943) [15:05]
Scherzino (1936) [2:44]
Etudes Improvisées [14:11]
Siciliana (1936) [3:53]
Lamar Crowson (piano)
rec. mono. December 1958 (Berkeley); February 1960 (Benjamin). ADD
Originally from LPs: Berkeley RCS9; Benjamin RCS20. Mid Price Double
LYRITA REAM.2109 [49:24 + 35:58]

Experience Classicsonline

 

Arthur Benjamin is a composer who suffers from being known primarily for one work – the Jamaican Rumba. This appears in dozens of guises – from James Galway to Glenn Miller. It is not given an outing on this CD. I am pleased that this pot-boiler does not distract from the fine selection of little-known works presented here.

The best place to start exploring this disc is the will o’ the wisp Scherzino. This is one of the earliest works here, yet it gives the listener the opportunity to approach the keyboard style of Benjamin. It must not be forgotten that he was a composer-pianist as well as a teacher. In fact Lamar Crowson, the pianist on these recordings was one of Benjamin’s American pupils. There is nothing technically easy about this Scherzino, yet it is immediately approachable and its ‘fairy-like’ mood owes more to Felix Mendelssohn than anything more avant-garde!

Next up, is the charming Siciliana. Once again, this is a work that appeals to the heart rather than the mind. As Herbert Howells in his original programme notes points out – this work "has no secrets: no complexity ..." It is a beautiful piece that deserves to be in the repertoire. It is perhaps the loveliest, if not the best, thing on this CD.

The Etudes Improvisées are perfectly titled. Rob Barnett in his review has beautifully summed these up as "eight little [pieces that are] testy, balletic, quirky, hectic, brilliantly Godowskian and explosive". The composer had originally planned to write ten brief movements – however only eight were completed and received the composer’s approval for performance. Alas, the CD cover does not give a date for this work: there is no reference in Grove. Yet this should not deter the listener from enjoying these miniatures – the longest is only two and half minutes whilst the shortest is a mere forty seconds. Into this small canvas, Benjamin manages to cram a lot of pianistic styles and emotional moods. Perhaps the opening Preambule is the most involved and the most passionate. Yet each of the succeeding ‘improvisées’ contribute to the sense of unity and continuity which is an impressive feature of this work: it would have been all too easy for this to have sounded like a collection of ‘lessons’ for advanced pupils! There is nothing easy or trivial about these pieces – especially Miroir which is written to be played ‘presto e leggiero possibile’. This is indeed a tour-de-force! The Arietta and the Adagio are certainly more introspective and at times quite dark. The mood is lightened with the lovely Valse Volante: alas, it is all over too quickly. The ‘molto allegro’ has no title, yet Howells quotes a pencil note by Crowson on the score – Les mains intimes – apparently referring to the complex ‘intermixing’ of hands required to interpret this piece. The Canon is slow and meditative and leads into the bravura ‘allegro strepitoso’. This last movement is an opportunity for pianists to let down their hair, as it were. It is full of exciting pianism and virtuosic detail and could only have been composed by a fine performer. It is a fitting conclusion to an interesting if somewhat wayward set of pieces.

Yet the most impressive and perhaps the most important work is the Pastorale, Arioso and Finale. It is written in a chromatic style that is perfectly approachable, if a little idiosyncratic. I have not studied the score but even a superficial hearing reveals a consummate understanding of piano technique. The work was composed in 1943 whilst Benjamin was in Canada as conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was dedicated to his friend Jack Henderson as a 21st birthday gift. Interestingly, Howells suggests that the opening Pastorale is ‘easy on the ear’. This may be true – yet there is a complexity and involved harmonic exploration that require some engagement by the listener. I am not convinced that it is really a ‘pastorale’ in the generally accepted sense of that definition. The ‘arioso’ is a much more profound piece that is both slow moving and ‘grave’. This music often seems to have an almost Debussy-ian impressionism about it. It is quite obviously passionate music - yet somehow this passion seems to be repressed. It is beautiful music that is full of poetry and involved musical imagery. The finale is a ‘toccata’ – that is full of movement and extrovert piano figurations. Howells alludes to the fundamental musical simplicity of its structure by suggesting that it is as ‘direct as a Roman road’. The whole movement is full of glitter and showmanship. It may not be written in a jazzy style, yet the exuberance of that genre is never too far away.

I guess that the best place to begin the exploration of Lennox Berkeley’s piano music is the set of Six Preludes. They were composed in 1944 and were dedicated to Val Drewry. The composer writes that, in these Preludes, it was his intention to "express himself as concisely as possible". Each one of these pieces presents a single idea, which may be a melodic or rhythmic germ and then offers it up in a variety of guises or, more pertinently, elaborations. It would be easy to try to allocate models to these Preludes – Chopin, Debussy and perhaps even Stravinsky spring to mind for at least four of them. Yet like all great composers, Berkeley does not write in a vacuum – he uses ideas and styles and adapts them to his own ends. He profits by the example of a previous generation – he does not fall victim to parody or pastiche. Perhaps the most perfect is the first, an ‘allegro’ that surely sounds like running water. The ‘allegretto’ is within the gift of competent amateurs and repays study. It is an elegant miniature that has beautiful harmonies: pure romanticism. Rob Barnett notes the nod to Haydn in the fifth prelude – and perhaps a ‘dash or two of Shostakovich’. Yet this has a felicity that is surely an important characteristic of Berkeley’s sound-world. I have always enjoyed the last prelude – one again playable by amateurs – it has a feel of Ireland’s Land of Lost Content.

A contemporary reviewer noted that Berkeley was "far from cramped and burdened by his musical ancestry, [he] has achieved that measure of independence which allows him to profit by the example of earlier composers, proving that their spirit is still alive and fertile." Surely this is an ideal encapsulation of these Six Preludes?

Perhaps it would be wise to consider the shorter pieces on this CD before attempting to come to terms with the great Piano Sonata. The Scherzo in D minor Op.32 No.2 was written for the present pianist Colin Horsley. Berkeley notes that this was a study in staccato and repeated notes – and as such is certainly difficult! I guess that it is one of the lesser known gems on this CD. I have always liked the Impromptu: it has a cool, laid-back style which surely echoes some of the works of Poulenc? The Concert Study in Eb Op.48 was the first piece of Berkeley’s piano music that I heard. It was played to me by an elderly pianist in Glasgow many years ago. What has always impressed me about this work is the middle section – it seems to be a considerable contrast to the fast semi-quavers of the opening material – both technically and emotionally. The Concert Studies Op.14 are the only works on this present CD that do not appear on Margaret Fingerhut’s recording of Berkeley’s music on Chandos. These are the earliest pieces on this CD and once again are based on a "definite pianistic feature". Interestingly, Horsley does not give the first of the set of four. Berkeley ‘studies’ legato touch, rapid semiquavers and alternating third and seventh chords. The last is probably my favourite although the entire set deserve recognition.

The most important item on this double CD is Berkeley’s Piano Sonata. It is a major work dating from 1945 and was written for Clifford Curzon, who premiered it in 1946. However Colin Horsley had a considerable association with the sonata both at home and abroad. It is massive in spite of being only twenty-three minutes long. Even a superficial hearing reveals this Sonata as big and complex work in four contrasting but inherently coherent movements. The opening ‘moderato’ strikes a fine balance between the rhythmic interest of the first subject and the ‘smooth’ and almost urbane melody of second. Yet, it is in the development of these themes that Berkeley reveals his true mastery. The second movement is an out-and-out scherzo. It is signed to be played ‘presto’ yet it is really a ‘moto-perpetuo’. It has a chromatic melody that is supported by technically difficult left-hand semi-quaver figures. The highlight of this movement is the attenuated melody which appears above the figuration in the middle of this movement.

The ‘adagio’ is notable for the interesting harmony which seems to generate the melodic material for this movement. The middle section is haunting and this is followed by a brief return to the opening material. There is a perfect ending to this gorgeous movement. The fourth movement is partly cyclical. The opening introduction refers to passages from the opening ‘moderato’. Berkeley suggests that this music is in fact improvisatory. The main part of the movement soon begins properly and turns out to be a fairly classically constructed ‘rondo’. There are nods to the semiquaver figuration from the second movements. The work ends with a repetition of part of the introduction.

This is a fantastic CD set – for three reasons. Firstly it is great to have these two vinyl discs re-pristinated on CD. Secondly the Berkeley disc is an excellent introduction to this composer’s piano music. And lastly it is one of the few currently available discs that explores Arthur Benjamin’s music. Round this out with the ‘two for one’ pricing strategy and this release is excellent value indeed.

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

Links

Arthur Benjamin: Interview between Richard Stoker and John France

ARTHUR BENJAMIN (1893-1960) by Pamela Blevins

SIR LENNOX BERKELEY by PETER DICKINSON

 


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