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The Berkeley Edition: Volume Four
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)

Concerto for Organ and Orchestra
Viola Concerto (Revised version 1996)
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)

Voices of the Night Op. 86
Symphony No. 2 (Revised version 1976)
Paul Silverthorne (viola) Thomas Trotter (organ)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Rec. St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, May 2003 (Organ Concerto) Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, May 2003 (other works) DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10167 [71:26]

 

As we reach the fourth instalment in the magnificent Chandos Berkeley Edition it is worth pausing briefly to consider the factors that have contributed to the quality of the series so far.

Firstly, the playing of the National Symphony Orchestra of Wales and the various soloists under the supremely consistent baton of Richard Hickox has been exemplary. Secondly, the recordings are some of the finest Chandos has produced in recent years. They are superbly engineered with a true sense of orchestral perspective and an impressive reproduction of the excellent acoustics of Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall (the exception here being the St. David’s Hall, Cardiff recording of Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto which is no less impressive). Thirdly, having a complete set of the Lennox Berkeley symphonies of this all-round quality is a joy in itself. Finally, the opportunity to hear Michael Berkeley’s music alongside that of his father has been a fascinating experience. Not that they immediately have that much in common; it is partly the sheer contrast that provides the interest. The father is emotionally restrained in his inspiration whilst lean in his orchestration in a manner that at times can seem more French than English. It gives clear pointers to both his studies with Nadia Boulanger and his friendship with such figures as Poulenc. Michael, on the other hand, shows a predilection for the bold orchestral gesture. Here, music of considerable violence and dissonance sits alongside a deeply-veined lyricism often bound in substantial and cohesively-constructed one-movement structures.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Organ Concerto. This is one of the first major pieces written following self re-reassessment of his compositional language and the resulting adoption of a more modernist stance. In point of fact the roots of the work go back to his childhood and in particular to his time in the choir of Westminster Cathedral. Into the music Berkeley weaves other strands, notably a quote from his own early Easter motet. This cuts a bold contrast with the prevailing dissonance, creating what Berkeley himself describes as "diatonic lies" within the music. Stravinsky, an earlier major influence on the composer also rears his head in the fanfare-like figures that blaze through the texture at around 5:45. In the way Berkeley constructs his harmonies and textures there is more than a hint of Lutosławski. All of these strands are woven together with impressive assurance and conviction.

At the opening of the Organ Concerto, Berkeley uses multi-layered trumpets, each a semi-tone above one another and in free time. The resulting effect is magically to evoke the Easter cortège of choristers as they process through the cathedral at the start of the Easter service. In a similar way ritual plays its part in the Viola Concerto, written for the Lichfield Festival in 1994. It was extensively revised in 1996. Here the music is darker in tone, imbued with an intense and passionate lyricism that Paul Silverthorne captures with searing expressive power. This register with particular power in the passages that exploit the upper register of the instrument, of which there are many. By far the longer span of this concerto, again cast in one continuous stretch of music, is slow in tempo. That said, Berkeley never allows the listener’s attention to wonder as he guides his way through an ever-fascinating web of orchestral textures that are often considerably reduced to allow the soloist’s anguished melodic line to penetrate.

Lennox Berkeley’s Voices of the Night shows the composer at his most impressionistic. Indeed, Berkeley himself described the piece as an ‘impressionistic nocturne’ concerned with the "mysterious atmosphere of night", whilst also alluding to Walt Whitman and a line from his ‘Song of Myself’, "I am he that walks with the tender and growing night". What emerges is a suitably twilit tone poem, the lean textures partially emerging from the darkness part way through before subsiding once again in an atmosphere of uneasy calm with a singular tolling bell chiming distantly in the background.

Of the four symphonies, the Second is probably the most difficult to get inside although this performance makes the strongest possible case for its place in the repertoire. Lacking the concentration and concision of the one-movement third yet not as expansive in conception as the three-movement fourth, the symphony gives the impression of falling between two stools despite its four-movement structure. Berkeley substantially revised the work in 1976, some eighteen years after it was written for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra who, early in 1959, gave its premiere under the baton of Andrzej Panufnik. Most of the changes involved the scoring, the composer wishing to move away from "keeping the various orchestral colours distinct" although as Anthony Burton points out in his informative booklet notes, "the use of the orchestra in blocks of string, woodwind and brass sonority is still one of the distinctive features". The mysterious, opening of the first movement, marked Lento, soon gives way to the first statement of the principal allegro theme although it is the music of the initial lento that ultimately returns to bring the movement to a close. A bitter-sweet though never boisterous scherzo follows after which the slow movement commences hauntingly, with strings creating an uneasy tension. The affirmatory finale is in a bright, D major and brings the symphony to a positive conclusion. Throughout the performance Richard Hickox’s control is taut yet beautifully pliable, He shapes the instrumental phrases with impeccable care and one senses a conductor totally at home with his repertoire.

Magnificent playing from the BBCNOW then, coupled with soloists of the highest possible quality in Thomas Trotter and Paul Silverthorne. The result is another winner of a disc and once again I find myself awaiting the next instalment with impatience.

Christopher Thomas



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