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The Berkeley Edition - Vol. 6
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Concerto for Orchestra ‘Seascape’ (2005) [24:21]
Gregorian Variations for Orchestra (1982) [17:04]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1948) [28:43]
Kathryn Stott, Howard Shelley (pianos)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 6-7 January 2006. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10408 [70:08]

 


This is the sixth and – we are told in the introductory note by Michael Berkeley – the last in the Berkeley family edition. The series has concentrated on orchestral music and, though I’ve only caught a couple of the previous discs, has been a more than worthwhile enterprise. It’s a pretty unique situation in recent times - or many others, for that matter - for father and son to turn out respected and successful composers and all the pieces on this final disc are very enjoyable.

The main work here as far as Michael is concerned is undoubtedly the premiere recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, subtitled ‘Seascape’. As he points out, the sea has influenced the Berkeley family in some form or another for many years, whether it be the navy, childhood holidays or Michael working as a boatman on the Norfolk coast. A brilliant introductory flourish recalls Stravinsky or, more latterly, one of Berkeley’s mentors Oliver Knussen. The first of the three movements remains restless, energetic, buoyantly uneasy, full of what the composer refers to as ‘wave-like propulsion’. It’s immensely engaging and not too dissonant, with thematic invention seeming, to me, to be subordinated to textural colour. Berkeley refers to the outer movements as having a ‘gaudy, scherzo-like character’ which is exactly what comes over. The central movement is the heart of the work and has another subtitle, ‘Threnody for a Sad Trumpet. In Memoriam J.A’, referring to his friend and arts campaigner Jane Attenborough, who died in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, as Berkeley was working on this very section. This elegy is for her and the thousands of others who lost their lives to the power of the sea that day. As BBC NOW principal Philippe Schartz’s trumpet sings its sad lament over restful, gently dissonant strings, one’s thoughts turn perhaps to this movement’s spiritual ancestor, Ives’s ‘Unanswered Question’. The finale (marked ‘fiery’) takes us back to the restlessness of the opening, and this time the mood darkens considerably, the Tippett-like woodwind chattering away over snarling brass. There is a grand, chordal climax at 6:43 where the marking is maestoso. The full orchestra is resplendently joined by organ, keeping the work again in its English line, before we move to a disquieting close in C sharp minor, where the gently overlapping, descending scales echo another appropriate model, Pärt’s ‘Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten’.

The work was premiered at the 2005 Prom by the forces here. Its dedicatee, Richard Hickox conducts his excellent orchestra with great vitality. It really is an immensely colourful and engaging piece which I hope gets future outings.

The other Michael Berkeley piece, Gregorian Variations, is from over twenty years earlier – and it shows. The thin, rather quaint material – basically bits of modal plainchant – is subjected to a series of lively and easy-on-the-ear variations which are again very skilfully orchestrated but lack the weight and memorable quality of the Concerto. Still, well worth having on the disc as a filler, especially for the jazzier moments.

The rest of the CD is devoted to Berkeley senior’s Double Piano Concerto, a half-hour piece originally written for Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick. This is not its first recording - that honour goes, inevitably, to Lyrita - but it’s difficult to imagine much more persuasive advocacy. More than one commentator has mentioned Beethoven as one model here, and I agree that the Piano Sonata Op.111’s structure may well have been in the composer’s mind, given the short, terse first movement followed by a long, theme and variation second movement. The rather angular opening thematic material and spiky piano writing does recall Britten - and even Bartók - in places, but it’s a colourful, inventive and enjoyable work. Of the eleven variations, which are banded separately here, I particularly like the 2nd - shades of the Sea Interludes - the adagio 4th and 8-10, which alternate pianos only – orchestra only – pianos only, a nice idea and typical of Berkeley’s inventiveness. Even though it’s quite hard to hear father/son musical links in these works, it’s very easy to hear where Berkeley junior got his ear for orchestral colour, detail and sheer old-fashioned craftsmanship.

I haven’t heard the Lyrita, though it’s bound to be good, but the excellent playing and superb audio quality make this present disc a real winner. The Concerto for Orchestra makes for perfect ‘approachable modernity’, and is a real find for me. A big thumbs up it is – and let’s hope it isn’t the last one, after all.

Tony Haywood 

 


 


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