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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Symphony No. 3 (1968-69)
Sinfonia Concertante Op. 84 (1972-73)
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)

Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra (1976-77)
Secret Garden (1997)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Recorded at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 27-28 October 2001 DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10022 [77:54]



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Despite the gap of a generation, only four years separate Lennox Berkeley’s Sinfonia Concertante from his eldest son’s Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra. The Sinfonia Concertante also features a prominent part for solo oboe and both works were written for Janet Craxton, a performer whose mantle has perhaps been handed over to the fine soloist here, Nicholas Daniel. This however is where the comparisons end for in the case of Berkeley senior his later works were notable for their economy of expression and melodic astringency. Michael on the other hand, at the time of his Oboe Concerto in 1977, was still trying to find his own voice, a challenge that must have been daunting given the myriad of influences that he heard around him through his father’s wide circle of composer friends. As a result the early tonal, unashamedly melodic, even lush style demonstrated in his Concerto, was later to be dispensed with in favour of a considerably more adventurous approach, rather going against the grain for a younger composer whose contemporaries were, in a number of cases, moving in the opposite harmonic direction and abandoning atonality in a move towards the "post-modernist" ethic.

Lennox Berkeley’s later economy is best demonstrated here by the Symphony No. 3, a tautly constructed, even terse work in one fourteen minute movement, albeit falling into three readily identifiable sections and conveniently tracked as such on this disc. Berkeley makes use of a somewhat diluted approach to twelve tone technique, much of the material stemming from the opening motif which contains part of the chromatic germ from which the rest of the symphony is to grow, giving the work its characteristic sound-world. The result is impressively argued and aurally coherent if veering slightly towards the cerebral, a point that is emphasised and made all the more obvious by the stylistic changes that his music had undergone by this point.

Interestingly the premiere of the Sinfonia Concertante was given at the same Prom as the London premiere of the Third Symphony, a concert that commemorated Berkeley’s seventieth birthday. What a great pity it is that a number of other important British composers who have celebrated similar milestones since were not afforded such an honour! Although written four years later than the Symphony the Sinfonia Concertante turns out to be the more expansively melodic of the two works, no doubt due to the composer’s specific intentions in writing for Janet Craxton and his desire to demonstrate the "oboe’s aptitude for melodic expression and expansion" rather than as a "vehicle for the display of virtuosity"; not that the work is lacking in technical fireworks as the second movement Allegro vivace shows. However, contrast this with the sunny fourth movement Canzonetta and one can clearly see what the composer was wishing to achieve. The work is beautifully and idiomatically written for the solo instrument and Berkeley’s scoring for his scaled-down orchestra, coupled with a touch of added colour from the piano is exquisitely done. Of the two works it is the impressive concision and cohesion of the Symphony that creates the more striking impression.

I clearly recall hearing Michael Berkeley’s early Symphony in One Movement: Uprising, for the first time and being astonished by its, at times, almost literal debt to Stravinsky, in particular the Symphony in Three Movements. In point of fact the Symphony appeared in 1980, three years after the Oboe Concerto, although in the concerto it is the composers who surrounded Berkeley during his youth, close friends of his father, that seem to exert the strongest influence on the young composer. The year Berkeley began work on the concerto saw the death of his godfather, Benjamin Britten, and as a result the work became a memorial to his father’s great friend. Indeed, the final movement carries the title, Elegy: In memoriam Benjamin Britten, although echoes of Britten also seem to hover in the opening movement. The central Scherzo: Allegro vivace is closer to his father’s music and perhaps not a long way from the language of Kenneth Leighton. Stylistic concerns aside however it is the young Berkeley’s ability to carry a sustained melodic line that makes the concerto worthwhile. Nicholas Daniel takes full advantage in a performance packed with atmosphere and gloriously singing solo playing.

Secret Garden serves as a good example of what Michael Berkeley’s music has become. It is not devoid of melody but is set against a more adventurous backdrop of harmonic freedom creating a harsher soundworld in which dissonance plays an integral, if controlled, part. The piece takes the listener on a journey through the recesses of the mind, following paths that are sometimes quickly aborted or can lead to further discoveries. The orchestration is exciting, the overall invention possibly less so, but the blazing closing paragraphs are undeniably impressive and had me reaching for the remote for a repeat hearing.

Chandos’s recording is finely captured in the spacious acoustics of Swansea’s excellent Brangwyn Hall. The strings in the Concerto have both warmth, natural depth of tone and admirable rhythmic clarity whilst the dynamics of the orchestra in full flight are truly thrilling (try the aforementioned closing bars of Secret Garden). Ultimately though it is Nicholas Daniel that steals the show. His playing demonstrates a musicianship that ranks him amongst our very finest instrumentalists and his contribution to this release cannot be underestimated.

Christopher Thomas



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