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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
A Lennox Berkeley Centenary Album
Horn Trio op. 44

Manoug Parikian, violin, Dennis Brain, horn, Colin Horsley, piano
Recorded no.1 studio Abbey Rd., London, 15th and 16th June 1954
Six Preludes op.23

Colin Horsley, piano
Recorded No.3 Studio, Abbey Rd., 13th July 1949
Four Poems of St.Teresa of Avila op.27

Pamela Bowden, contralto, Collegium Musicum Londinii/John Minchinton
Recorded No.1 Studio Abbey Rd., 17th and 18th March 1958
Three Greek Songs op.38
Five poems by W.H.Auden op.58

Thomas Hemeley, baritone, Ernest Lush, piano
Recorded No.3 Studio, Abbey Rd., 15th January 1959
Polka op5 no.1

Cyril Smith & Phyllis Sellick (two pianos three hands)
Recorded No.1 Studio, Abbey Rd., 27th and 28th June and 7th July 1967
I Sing of a Maiden

Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks, Andrew Davis, organ
The Lord is My Shepherd op.91 no.1

Thomas Rose, treble, Christopher Hughes, organ, Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Recorded Chapel of King’s College Cambridge, 3rd-5th August 1965 and 16th –19th Dec. 1991
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 85138 2 0 [73:09]

This thoughtfully assembled compilation brings together recordings made over a period of more than forty years, and features performances by many of the finest musicians working in post-war Britain. It also acts as an excellent introduction to the music of this meticulous and versatile composer, the centenary of whose birth fall this year (2003). Such celebrations can seem contrived or unnecessary; but in Berkeley’s case, they act as a valuable forum in which to re-evaluate his impressively rich and wide-ranging output.

One critic has called him "the leading Francophile amongst British musicians", and there is indeed a certain ‘French polish’ about his music (with apologies to RVW who coined that usage!). Yet it is also profoundly and unmistakably English, and has close links with Britten, Tippett and Finzi, to name but three. It is very personal stuff, with a little built-in emotional reticence. That in itself is very English, of course, but it does mean that the music doesn’t always reach out and grab you in quite the way that of some of his contemporaries can do. But it generously rewards repeated hearings, for this music is full of character, as well as being superbly crafted.

The first piece on the disc, the Horn Trio, is a fine example of this. Much more than a mere ‘companion piece’ to the great Brahms work for this medium, the trio has what might look, on paper, to be an unbalanced structure. There are three movements, starting with an energetic allegro, called to action by boldly rising fourths in the horn part. Then there is a brooding and very beautiful Lento, leading to the finale, a theme and ten variations on a relaxed, playful theme, whose diffident descending seventh seems the antithesis of the striding fourths of the first movement. The variations are resourceful and entertaining, and, despite the apparently lop-sided structure, the whole work is perfectly judged. Brain, Parikian and Horsley give a masterly performance, and the recording from 1954 sounds as fresh as a daisy.

Pianists who have not come across the Preludes have a treat in store – these slight works are a delight, perhaps the most memorable being the final Andante with its gentle Siciliana rhythm. The Four Poems of St.Teresa of Avila are sung with engaging sincerity by Pamela Bowden, her rich contralto voice making the third of the songs, Let mine eyes see thee, sweet Jesus of Nazareth a profound experience – I cannot imagine a more affecting setting of these moving words. The string playing by the Collegium Musicum is quite outstanding.

And what a joy to have Thomas Hemsley, that fine baritone, at his absolute peak, in two groups of Berkeley songs. It was particularly interesting to compare his version of the Auden Poems with that of Philip Langridge, whose re-issue on Naxos I reviewed last month. It’s impressive that Hemsley is certainly a match for Langridge in his sensitivity to the texts and to their characterisation in the music. Maybe Langridge spins an even more sustained line in Eyes look into the well; but these are deeply felt imaginative responses from Hemsley, and his inimitable voice is perfectly captured by the recording.

The 1934 Polka, one of Three Pieces for Two Pianos, op. 5, shows Berkeley early on in a mischievous style, much influenced by Les Six. The ‘wrong-note’ jokes also remind one inescapably of the Shostakovich of the Age of Gold polka. Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick were a talented piano duo, though Smith tragically lost the use of one arm after a stroke. Undeterred, they not only took large swathes of the piano-duet and two-piano repertoire and adapted them for three hands, but also commissioned a number of works from important composers. Their performance of this brief Polka is appropriately scintillating and witty.

Two lovely short choral works complete the disc. A young Andrew Davis makes a cameo appearance as the organist in the tranquil carol I sing of a maiden. The Lord is my Shepherd is more extended, but is still a model of concision. In both pieces, the choir of King’s College Cambridge sings as beautifully as you would expect, even though twenty-six years separates the two recordings; some things never seem to change, happily! The outstanding treble soloist in the latter work is Thomas Rose.

This is a deeply satisfying disc, and I came from it thinking that Berkeley was an even better composer than I realised – which must have been one of the aims in its production. This is a major contribution to the centenary celebrations of one of our finest composers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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