My only really good
Lennox Berkeley story is perhaps worth
repeating. I told a friend of mine that
I had a nice chat with Michael Berkeley
at a Houseman weekend at Bromsgrove.
I thought she would be impressed. She
replied to me, "Oh I had dinner
with Lennox." That was the end
of that conversation. Deflated, I resolved
never to name-drop again!
I heard the First
Symphony back in the mid-seventies
when it was first released on Lyrita.
I must confess that I was not impressed.
I am not now too sure as to the reasons
for this distaste – but I think it may
have been to do with the fact that at
that time I was besotted with Ralph
Vaughan Williams – and Berkeley just
did not have the pastoral touch! Over
the years I have heard this work again
and have revised my impression. I would
not say that it was in my top ten symphonies
but I have come to see it as a major
essay in that particular form – with
a particular significance.
The work’s genesis
lies in the late 1930s however it was
completed in 1940. The Symphony
is obviously a ‘wartime’ work - at least
as far as the dates are concerned. However
when this work is compared to many ‘wartime’
symphonies we notice an interesting
Typically a composer
could do four things. He could write
music totally influenced by the horrors
and stress of the times. Secondly he
could allow the signs of the times to
surface in his music. Thirdly he could
compose idealistic music that looked
beyond the strife and lastly he could
ignore the conflict. In Britain there
was no great demand for the first option.
I guess that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth
Symphony fulfils the third category.
Certainly Goossens’ two ‘wartime’ essays
ignore the historical moment. It is
perhaps the second option that influenced
most British composers. We need think
of Armstrong Gibbs' Odysseus
or perhaps Arthur Benjamin’s Symphony.
managed a fine synthesis. There is elegance
and wit in this work that on the one
hand belies the historical situation
– yet there are also turbulent passages
that suggest a ‘reflection of wartime
moods.’ The keynote of this work is
emotional and stylistic balance.
The opening movement
is in classical sonata-form with a good
contrast between the first and second
subjects. Fine writing for brass is
one of the highlights.
Look out for the waltz-like
‘allegretto’ which is so typical of
Berkeley. However it is with the ‘lento’
that we feel that the war is pressing
in on this Symphony. This is
deeply felt music that inspires as well
as challenges. The last movement probably
owes more to Haydn than any other composer.
This is a fascinating little ‘rondo’
with more than a passing nod to the
neo-classical Serenade for Strings.
The Second Symphony
was composed in 1956/57 as a commission
from the Feeney Trust; however it was
considerably revised by the composer
in 1976. It is this version that is
recorded here. Apparently Berkeley had
reservations about the scoring of the
original work. He wrote that in 1956
he had been trying to keep the various
orchestral colours discreet. He later
came to the view that he had overdone
this process and decided that the work
needed ‘a freer and more robust treatment’.
There was a certain amount of formal
rework as well – passages were extended
– but no new material was invented.
I have never heard the original version
as the Chandos recording also uses the
Interestingly the received
wisdom seems to be that this is perhaps
the most difficult of the Berkeley Symphonies
to come to terms with. The reasons given
for this are that it lacks the concentration
and concision of the Third and
that it is not as ‘expansive in conception
as the … Fourth. I must beg to
differ on this. The Second has
been my favourite ever since I got over
the fact that the composer was not writing
in a pastoral vein. From the mysterious
opening bars through to the energetic
final coda the music is inventive and
satisfying. The melodic invention, the
bitter sweet harmonises and the idiosyncratic
instrumentation all lend themselves
to a fine work.
Lyrita has done well
to re-release Lennox Berkeley’s first
three Symphonies. I wonder if
the archive has a recording of the Fourth?
Chandos have recorded all four Symphonies
and Richard Hickox has done a great
service to Berkeley’s orchestral works.
It is impossible to
say what version is ‘best’. However
I would say that for me, the Lyrita
disc does have the edge. It is probably
because these are the recordings I came
to know over the last thirty odd years.
see also review
by Rob Barnett