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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Piano Concerto in B flat, op. 29 (1947) [26:13]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, op. 30 (1948) [32:17]
David Wilde (piano, op. 29)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite (op. 29)
Garth Beckett and Boyd McDonald (pianos, op. 30)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Norman Del Mar (op. 30)
rec. no information provided
LYRITA SRCD.250 [58:33]

Experience Classicsonline

Unlike several other MusicWeb International reviewers, I am very far from being an expert on English music. Therefore Berkeley is new to me, a name that I have heard before but not having anything to associate with it. Biographical overviews emphasize the degree to which he was influenced by the musical life of France — he studied with Nadia Boulanger, becoming "her most distinguished pupil." Along the way he gained an admiration for colleagues such as Ravel, Poulenc and Stravinsky.

While in his Piano Concerto I hear some of the sound of the gentler French influences such as Ravel and Poulenc, it is marked from the opening with the sweep and drama that clearly places it in the same orchestral tradition as the work of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The notes for this recording indicate both Berkeley’s self-deprecation regarding his piano-playing abilities and his passion for this instrument as a centerpiece of his musical life. This work is entirely indicative of the latter feeling, as it is of his compositional understanding of weaving the concerto narrative from the dialogue of piano and orchestra. The first movement is fiery and impetuous. The second opens with a quiet, perhaps romantic, conversation between piano and strings. The third movement strikes another mood: playful, and a touch sly. There are, however, occasional background intimations of industrial ponderousness, a combination of forces evocative of Shostakovich and other Soviet composers writing at the same time as Berkeley. Though for this American reviewer, the genre of "British piano concerto" doesn’t call to mind a host of examples, Berkeley’s is as fine an exemplar as one could hope for. The composer said of David Wilde’s performance that it was "really first-class", and in this he was correct.

The Concerto for Two Pianos has a more Russian sound, starting out almost like a light version of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. The formal structure of the work, however, is less conventional. It has two movements, a shorter first movement with a slow-fast-slow tempo layout, and then an extended (nearly twenty-five minutes) theme and variations. The latter is a faithful copy of the genre of modernist-romantic that was prevalent early in the century, although the present work didn’t receive its concert-hall premiere until 1958. As a complete piece, however, this work hangs together less well, feeling episodic by the end, and is therefore less compelling than its discmate. Whether the composer or the pianists Beckett and McDonald bear responsibility, the possible dramatic relationship between the two pianos is not exploited. It’s often hard to tell that there’s more than one instrument at play.

These works can also be found in the Chandos series underway (the piano concerto on CHAN 10265, the two-piano concerto on CHAN 10408) which combines Lennox Berkeley’s works with those of his composer-son Michael. These newer releases, which I have not heard, are sure to have more modern sound, though that of the Lyrita issue late-analog wears its age well. These are works that deserve comparative performances — even with my reservations about the Concerto for Two Pianos — so it’s good to have choice.

Brian Burtt

see also review by Gary Higginson and Jonathan Woolf





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