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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989): Sacred Choral Music
Crux Fidelis, Op. 43, No 1 (1955) [6’52"]
Missa Brevis, Op. 57* (1960) [10’53"]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, Op. 99* (1980) [9’48"]
Three Latin Motets, Op. 83, No 1 (1972)
Eripe me, Domine [4’18"]
Veni, sponsa Christi [2’06"]
Regina Coeli [2’31"]
The Lord is my shepherd, Op. 91, No 1* (1975) [4’20"]
Mass for Five Voices, Op. 64 (1964) [11’46"]
Look up, sweet babe, Op. 43, No 2* (1955) [4’29"]
A Festival Anthem, Op. 21, No 2* (1945) [11’47"]
Toccata* (from Three Pieces, Op. 72, No 1) (1966-8) [4’45"]
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge
*Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Directed by Christopher Robinson
Recorded in the Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge 20, 21 and 23 March, 2003
NAXOS 8.557277 [75’10"]

 

"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.

John Quinn

 



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