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Lennox BERKELEY (1903–1989)
String Quartet No.1 Op.6 (1935) [26:27]
String Quartet No.2 Op.15 (1941) [18:30]
String Quartet No.3 Op.76 (1970) [18:05]
Maggini Quartet
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 7-9 December 2006.
NAXOS 8.570415 [63:02]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a disc that I have long been awaiting, for I have known Berkeley’s string quartets from tapes of broadcasts for many long years and deplored that nobody seemed interested in recording them. True, the Second String Quartet was tackled fairly recently and released in one of the Berkeley pčre et fils discs issued by Chandos (CHAN 10364), but the other two remained ignored till now. They form an excellent coupling for they clearly demonstrate that Berkeley’s style progressed over the years while preserving typical hallmarks, most prominent among these being contrapuntal mastery, elegance and lucid musical argument.

Though an early work, the String Quartet No.1 Op.6 completed in 1935 is somewhat more advanced stylistically in that the music is indebted to the idiom of its time. Richard Whitehouse suggests “the presence of Bartók”, which may not be evident to all but which is certainly reflected in the rather more stringent, at times acerbic harmonies pervading the music. What comes clearly through, is the almost classical poise of much of the music - a typical Berkeley hallmark. Berkeley’s First Quartet is in four movements, with a short lively Scherzo placed third. The biting rhythms of the first movement are offset by a tender slow movement that has its sharper edges. The quicksilver Scherzo moves along at great speed and not without tension but it tiptoes away into silence. The concluding movement is a theme and six contrasting and substantial variations. The last of these provides a slow, elegiac close. The First Quartet is an ambitious, accomplished work in which Berkeley’s contrapuntal mastery is evident throughout. I find it entirely convincing and most rewarding.

The String Quartet No.2 Op.15, completed in 1941, shows how Berkeley progressed over the years. Influences have now been absorbed and the end result is pure Berkeley. The first movement displays a good deal of energy and the dialogue between the two strongly contrasted subjects is handled with considerable assurance and vigour. The beautiful slow movement contains some of the finest music that Berkeley ever penned and provides the perfect foil to the other movements’ energetic, athletic writing. The third movement opens with a nervous gesture suggesting a powerful release of energy; but, for all its boisterousness, the music carries an uneasy feeling that is hardly dispelled in the final coda. A magnificent work and one of his unquestionable and unquestioned masterpieces. There is not much to choose between the Maggini’s and the Chilingirian’s readings of this work. The Chilingirian are marginally quicker than the Maggini, and their reading has a greater urgency. Both ensembles play superbly and have the full measure of this marvellous work.

The String Quartet No.3 Op.76 was completed nearly thirty years after its predecessor, at the end of a decade in which Berkeley composed his opera Castaway Op.68 (I hope that Richard Hickox will soon record it), the large-scale Magnificat Op.71 for chorus and orchestra (a work crying out for recording) and the masterly Symphony No.3 Op.74, one of his greatest achievements only to be surpassed by the Symphony No.4 Op.94. At about that time, too, Berkeley, in much the same way as many other composers, toyed with twelve-tone music although he did so in a highly non-dogmatic personal way. In his last string quartet, Berkeley returned to a more traditional structure in four movements with a short nervous Scherzo placed second. Much as in the Second Quartet, the third movement Lento stands out as the emotional core. The final movement opens with forceful energy as if willing to dispel any possible ambiguity experienced in the course of the preceding movements. A brief recollection of the slow movement tends to belie any attempt at a clear resolution. This is then brushed aside by a restatement of the opening material rushing the movement to its somewhat dismissive conclusion. A beautiful product of Berkeley’s full maturity.

The Maggini, again, deserve full marks for their superb readings of these beautiful and hugely rewarding works. I do not know where we would be without them. This is a splendid release on all counts and my Bargain of the Month.

Hubert Culot



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