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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)
Alison Nicholls (harp)
rec. 4-6 June 2008, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

1. D'un vanneur de blé aux vents (1924) [1:59]
Tombeaux (1926):
2. De Sapho (Of Sappho) [4:43]
3. De Socrate (Of Socrates) [1:46]
4. D'un fleuve (Of a stream) [0:37]
5. De Narcisse (Of Narcissus) [1:52]
6. De Don Juan (Of Don Juan) [1:11]
7. How love came in (1933) [1:31]
8. Bells of Cordoba from Five Songs, Op.14/2 [1:37]
Five Poems of W. H. Auden, Op.53 (1958):
9. Lauds. Among the leaves the small birds sing [2:11]
10. O lurcher-loving collier, black as night [2:24]
11. What's in your mind, my dove, my coney [1:43]
12. Eyes look into the well [2:23]
13. Carry her over the water [1:20]
Five Herrick Poems, Op.89 (1973/74, rev. 1976):
14. Now is your turne, my dearest, to be-set [1:15]
15. Dearest of thousands, now the time draws near [2:48]
16. These springs were maidens once that loved [1:22]
17. My God! Look on me withe'eye [2:43]
18. If nine times you your bridegroom kisse [0:53]
Autumn's Legacy, seven songs, Op.58 (1962):
19. The mighty thoughts of an old world [2:19]
20. All night a wind of music [1:02]
21. Lesbos [2:33]
22. Tonight the winds begin to rise [2:34]
23. Hurrahing in harvest [3:11]
24. Rich Days [1:23]
25. When we were idlers with the loitering rills [3:12]
26. Automne, Op.60/3 (1963) [2:27]
27. Ode du premier jour de Mai from 5 Songs, Op.14 (1940) [2:19]
28. Sonnet, Op.102 (1982) [2:42]
Five Chinese Songs, Op.78 (1971):
29. People hide their Love [2:27]
30. The Autumn Wind [1:49]
31. Dreaming of a Dead Lady [2:11]
32. Late Spring [1:43]
33. The Riverside Cottage [2:16]

Over the last decade or so the music of Lennox Berkeley has gradually but consistently received attention in the recording studio. There are now numerous recordings available but I believe that Berkeley is a composer who is still often overlooked. Although not an exact contemporary, he kept well clear of the influences of the Stanford's large group of pupils at the Royal College of Music.

Significantly in 1926 on the advice of Maurice Ravel, he travelled to France to study with Nadia Boulanger. As a result his compositional idiom embraced a more urbane, continental character than many of his British contemporaries. I wrote in an earlier review that it was a cause of irritation to me that Berkeley's music is habitually described as 'well-crafted', a term that is I believe really a euphemism for saying 'nice but not outstanding'. I couldn't disagree more strongly. Berkeley composed elegant music with clear luminous textures, like brilliantly cut and polished gemstones. As a composer, for me, Berkeley is a connoisseur's choice.

Some of the best regarded scores are his Serenade for Strings (1939); Guitar Concerto (1975); Sextet (1954); Concertino (1955) Missa Brevis, Op. 57 (1960); Mass for Five Voices, Op. 64; Serenade, Op. 12 and his three String Quartets. I will suggest two discs that would be ideal starting places for those wanting to explore the delights of Berkeley's music. I have especially enjoyed the three String Quartets performed by the Maggini at Potton Hall in 2006 on Naxos 8.570415. Another disc that will reward any discerning listener is Berkeley's Sacred Choral Music performed by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge directed by Christopher Robinson. This was recorded in 2003 at the Chapel of St. John's College on Naxos 8.557277.

The most obvious set of recordings to investigate is the six volume Berkeley Edition on Chandos. It is devoted to both Lennox and his son Michael. On volume 6 I was especially impressed by Lennox Berkeley's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op.30, a score premiered in 1948 by the duo of Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. Performed here by Kathryn Stott and Howard Shelley with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Richard Hickox and recorded in 2006 at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea this is on Chandos CHAN 10408 (c/w Michael Berkeley: Concerto for Orchestra 'Seascapes' and Gregorian Variations).

I first came across Lennox Berkeley's songs on a radio broadcast of the outstanding first set of Four Ronsard Sonnets for two tenors and piano, Op. 40. If memory serves this would have been sometime in the 1970s. I know that Sir Peter Pears who commissioned the score first performed the Sonnets with tenor Hugues Cuénod and pianist George Malcolm in 1952 at the Raphael Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It seems that Berkeley made some revisions to the Sonnets for a performance by Pears at the 1977 Aldeburgh Festival. It is rather disappointing that these high quality Four Ronsard Sonnets were not included here.

Several of the works here receive their first recordings. The impressive tenor James Gilchrist fully enters into spirit of each song. His voice sounds fresh and his weight of expression feels just right. The recording engineers at Potton Hall, Dunwich have brought out an impressive evenness of tonal production. Impeccable accompaniment too from both pianist Anna Tilbrook and harpist Alison Nicholls. Amongst the numerous highlights I loved the opening song D'un vanneur de blé aux vents (The Thresher) a Joachim du Bellay setting from 1924. It is splendidly sung by Gilchrist who provides a soft and tender atmosphere. From the 1926 set of Tombeaux by Jean Cocteau the very brief third song D'un fleuve (Of a stream) is bright and effervescent. It contrasts well with the sadness and longing of the third song, De Narcisse (Of Narcissus). 
The first of the Five Poems of W. H. Auden, Lauds. Among the leaves the small birds sing is a temperamental song of varying moods. With harp accompaniment, I admired the bright and excitable writing of Now is your turne, my dearest, to be-set one of the Five Herrick Poems, Op.89 from the 1970s. The second of the Herrick Poems, Dearest of thousands, now the time draws neare is rather macabre with a feeling of resignation at the onset of death.

Of the set of seven Thomas Lovell Beddoes songs Autumn's Legacy, I loved the defiance of The mighty thoughts of an old world and the appealingly mellow writing of the William Henry Davies setting Rich Days. From Five Chinese Songs, Late Spring is appealing in its description of the changing aspects of nature. In the final track, The Riverside Cottage I was struck by the feeling of cool beauty evocative of the shimmering moon reflected on calm water.

There are not too many discs of Lennox Berkeley songs in the catalogues. There is however a fine alternative account of the Five Auden Poems on a disc of Berkeley and Britten settings by W.H. Auden. These are performed by tenor Philip Langridge accompanied by Steuart Bedford. Recorded in London in 1995-97 the disc was originally released on the Collins Classics label in 1998 and has been reissued on Naxos 8.557204.  
This is an enjoyable and accessible collection. The outstanding presentation includes first class documentation.

Michael Cookson 


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