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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Sacred Choral Music

Crux Fidelis Op.43 no. (1955); Missa Brevis Op.57 (1960); Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis Op.99 (1980); Three Latin Motets (1972); The Lord is my Shepherd Op.91 no.1 (1975); Mass for Five voices Op.64 (1964); Look up, sweet babe Op.43 no.2 (1955); A Festival Anthem Op.21 no.2 (1945); Toccata from Three pieces for organ Op.72 no.1 (1966-8)
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Jonathan Vaughan, Organ
Recorded at St. John’s Cambridge, March 2003
NAXOS 8.557277 [75.10]

The more I hear this extraordinary and sensitively written music the more I am astonished that, having been a lay clerk and myself involved in church music for more years than I care to remember, I have only sung two of the pieces on this CD. In fact I have sung only one other of Berkeley’s choral works, the well known Christmas motet ‘I sing of a Maiden’ (not recorded here). Why? Well as the booklet notes by Andrew Burn say: now is at last the time when Lennox Berkeley can have his day.

Berkeley was a contemporary of Edmund Rubbra who was also a man of faith and for most of his life, like Berkeley a Roman Catholic. He too wrote much for the church. This same choir recorded for Naxos an award-winning disc of his church music two years ago. Herbert Howells was, unlike Berkeley and Rubbra, an Anglican. He was eleven years older than Berkeley but is much closer to him in style and atmosphere than Rubbra. Berkeley’s late, ethereal and lyrical Mag’ and Nunc bear witness to what I mean. The same comment could well apply to the moving Mass for five voices. Here, as elsewhere on the CD, I sometimes find the boy’s vowels to be too covered, too precious almost. I have to admit to preferring the more open vowels more typical of good continental choristers and also of the choir of New College Oxford.

Both Berkeley and Howells never seem to be too far away from plainchant. Listen to the uninhbited flexible modal lines and the seemingly free rhythmic flow in for example the Gloria of Berkeley’s ‘Missa Brevis’. The opening intonation which is, of course, authentic plainchant, flows and ebbs into Berkeley’s own line for ‘et in terra pax’ so that it appears to be plainchant itself until the illusion is phased away by the entry of another voice.

With the ‘Festival Anthem’ of 1944 one is reminded of Berkeley’s very particular friend and colleague Benjamin Britten. Just two year’s before this Britten had composed ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ for the same commissioner, Walter Hussey, who at that time was Vicar at the go-ahead church of St. Matthews Northampton. Berkeley takes three texts from the so-called ‘mystical school of English poetry’, men who were contemporary with Christopher Smart and set by Britten, that is George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. However in my view piece this can only rank as early and interesting. I find it unsatisfactory in its overall balance. Its rather sudden and quiet ending is unsatisfying and left me wondering what it led into next.

The ‘Three Latin Motets’ are wonderful pieces setting ancient texts. They are unaccompanied and in the case of the third, the setting of the ‘Regina Coeli’, unbuttoned … even extremely joyous. The middle motet ‘Veni sponsa, Christi’ ends with a deliciously beautiful Alleluia with an unexpected final chord. But talking of ‘unbuttoned’ reminds me to mention the Organ Toccata with which the CD ends. It is quite dissonant, very virtuoso; quite different from much of the other music.

This is a well chosen group of pieces stretching across much of the composer’s lifetime from 1944 to his last years of compositional activity in the early 1980s.

The performances are, with the exception mentioned above, exemplary. Although you will need to turn up the volume control higher than usual the recordings are near to faultless.

This CD acts as an ideal farewell from Christopher Robinson who retired from St.John’s in July 2003 after twelve years of wonderful music making. Highly recommendable.

Gary Higginson

See also review by John Quinn



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