"Being a Roman Catholic, I have naturally
been drawn to the Latin liturgy and felt at home with it; it’s
part of my life, and I have wanted to bring to it what I have
to offer, however unworthy." Thus Lennox Berkeley in a 1966
article entitled Truth in Music. The revealing quotation
is included in Andrew Burn’s excellent notes, which accompany
this latest release in Naxos’s ongoing survey of English church
music by Christopher Robinson and the choir of St. John’s College,
Cambridge. The content of this CD show that Berkeley was a highly
accomplished contributor to the genre of church music.
There are quite a few Latin settings in this
anthology though the Anglican tradition is also well represented.
Both the Mass settings were written for the choir of Westminster
Cathedral. What a rich period this must have been for the choir
with Berkeley’s first setting following hard on the heels of Benjamin
Britten’s Missa Brevis in D major (1959), also written
for them. At the time that Berkeley’s Missa Brevis was
composed his two sons, Julian and the future composer, Michael,
were choristers at the cathedral. Whether they were still there
when Cardinal Heenan commissioned the second Mass setting in 1964
I am not sure.
Other personal connections run through this collection.
The tenor soloist in the first performance of Crux Fidelis
was none other than Peter Pears, long-time companion of Berkeley’s
friend, Benjamin Britten. (There is another Britten connection
in that the choir for that première was the Purcell Singers,
conducted by Imogen Holst.) Berkeley was but one of many composers
who received commissions from the Reverend Walter Hussey, that
great (and last?) English ecclesiastical patron of the arts. It
was at the recommendation of Britten that Hussey gave Berkeley
a commission in 1945 which resulted in A Festival Anthem
and there’s a nice symmetry in that Berkeley wrote not only that
music for Hussey’s first important benefice, St. Matthew’s, Northampton
but also produced a work for his last, Chichester Cathedral, where
Hussey became Dean (The Lord is my shepherd, dedicated
to Hussey.) One final personal connection is that the Three
Latin Motets were commissioned by St. John’s College and were
first performed by the college’s choir under Christopher Robinson’s
distinguished predecessor, the late George Guest.
This CD appears just as Christopher Robinson,
Guest’s successor, retires (in July 2003) after twelve years of
equally distinguished service to the college and its choir. I
don’t know if any further recordings are "in the can"
for Naxos but if this is to be the final disc from the choir under
Robinson’s direction it makes a very suitable envoi.
Without exception the pieces included here show
Berkeley’s fastidious musical craftsmanship, his responsiveness
to words and his subtle harmonic palette. Like his great friend,
Francis Poulenc, with whose music his is often compared, his melodies
tend to be of relatively short span and the music is economical
of means, even spare. In my experience at least his music doesn’t
really have a sensuous side, unlike some of Poulenc’s melodies,
and several of the works on this CD lean towards austerity. Some
of them put me in mind of Poulenc but in his more austere, astringent
mode. These works do not give up their secrets easily but they
amply repay careful and attentive listening.
The Three Latin Motets seem to me to be
closest to Poulenc, especially in the harmonic astringency of
Eripe me, Domine and in the elation of Regina Coeli.
Earlier, the gaunt and intense anthem Crux Fidelis
is well sung (as are the motets) and the unnamed tenor soloist
sings his taxing line plangently.
The Lord is my shepherd is, on the face
of it, the most approachable piece on the CD, mainly on account
of the winning principal theme, heard initially sung by a solo
treble (another good soloist). However, it’s not a straightforward
piece and it is difficult for the choir. Happily, the St John’s
singers are equal to its challenges, as they are to all the challenges
in the other pieces in their recital. The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ are
both highly effective settings, the former vividly imaginative
in its response to the text, the latter lyrical and fluent. Perhaps
it’s no surprise that Berkeley is one of those composers who provides
a fairly quiet ‘Glory be’ to conclude his canticles. His ‘Glory’
is a quietly confident expression of faith.
The two Mass settings are substantial offerings.
Neither is written on an expansive canvass, such was not Berkeley’s
way, but both "compensate" through their concision and
sincerity of expression. Felicitous touches abound. In the more
outgoing Missa Brevis the interweaving choral lines in
the Kyrie are ear-catching as is the ethereal line for solo treble
at the start of the Sanctus. The Agnus Dei is powerful and intense.
In the à capella Mass for Five Voices the addition
of a second treble line enriches the texture at times but the
music is still on a more intimate scale. Compared with the earlier
setting, the Mass is generally gentler in tone and the whole work
is distinguished by sincerity of utterance and harmonic fluency.
I found the lovely, gentle Agnus Dei particularly affecting.
Throughout this recital the singing of the choir
is fully up to the high standards we have come to expect from
them. It’s a shame the soloists aren’t named for all do well.
Jonathan Vaughn’s accompaniments are effective and suitably discreet
(as befits this composer, I think). He comes into his own at the
end with a fine account of the Toccata. As I said earlier
in the review, if this is to be Christopher Robinson’s last recording
with his choir then he goes out on a high note for the choir are
well balanced, and have clearly been thoroughly prepared. Robinson
directs them with care and understanding.
Earlier in this series St John’s paid a most
worthy centenary tribute to Edmund Rubbra. Now they have done
it again and given us a fine recital of Berkeley’s music in his
centenary year. There is much in this music and in these performances
to savour and admire and I strongly recommend this disc to all
who love the music of the English Church.