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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Trio for violin, horn and piano, Op.44 (1944) [26:29]
Sonatina for flute and piano, Op.13 (1939) [10:13]
Viola Sonata Op.22 (1945) [16:47]
Quintet, Op.90 for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1975) [23:07]
Raphael Terroni (piano); Susanne Stanzeleit (violin); Patrick Williams (flute); Morgan Goff (viola); Members of the New London Chamber Ensemble
rec. St Paul’s Southgate, London, 6-8 May 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572288 [76:54]

Experience Classicsonline

I have never really got to know Lennox Berkeley’s chamber music. The first of his works that I discovered were the old vinyl releases of orchestral music on Lyrita from the late sixties/early seventies. This included the delicious and deservedly popular Serenade for Strings and the decidedly ‘Gallic’ Piano Concerto in B flat. Over the years I have got to know the symphonies, certainly most of the solo piano pieces, some of the songs and a fair few examples from the corpus of choral music. But somehow the chamber works have remained elusive.
 
Even the briefest of glances at Berkeley’s catalogue shows a considerable portion of his achievement was in this particular genre. The main element of continuity would appear to be the three string quartets (+ In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky) which were written over a 36 year period. However, the combination of wind instruments and strings was a particular favourite of the composer. A large portion of this CD is given over to the Horn Trio and the Quintet, both of which are major works in the wind genre.
 
However, a great place to begin exploration of this disc is the Sonatina for flute and piano Op.13. I am delighted that it has been given in this version. I understand that it was originally written for an ‘early music’ combination of recorder and harpsichord: dedicated to Carl Dolmetsch. However, it was authorised by the composer for playing in the present incarnation. The liner-notes suggest that it is an ‘artless amalgam of neo-Baroque and neo classical traits.’ If this is seen as a mild rebuke, Richard Whitehouse assures us it is this artless-ness that has maintained the work’s relative popularity since it was first heard in 1939. I believe that this ‘popularity’ is because the flute and piano take themselves less seriously, less snobbishly, than their ‘period instrument’ alter ego. This is a cool work that belies the troubled times during which it was conceived. After a discursive opening movement which contrasts two rhythmically discrete themes, a ‘limpid’ coda leads into a reflective ‘adagio’: this is really a flute solo, gently and economically supported by the piano. The finale has spontaneity and a playful nature that nods towards the chamber works of Malcolm Arnold. Look out for the rather nautical air, too.
 
The Viola Sonata, Op. 22 is a much more powerful work than the Sonatina, as one might expect. It was composed in 1945 at the end of the Second World War and certainly reflects the mood, stresses and strains of the period. However, it is not a work that is any way negative: neither is it unremitting aggression or blatant ‘war-music.’
 
The first movement, which is written in sonata-form, is the most angst-ridden part of the piece: it is intense, emotional and ‘big’ sounding. However a quiet coda leads to the much more lyrical ‘adagio’. This is the heart of the work and has a ‘keen and unaffected pathos’. Yet, this is not easy music to listen to: it is often too involved with itself - too introverted. There is a huge climax in the mid-movement before the composer closes down the emotion and finishes on a retrospective backward glance.
 
The mood lightens a little - not a lot - in the final ‘allegro’ with hugely energetic music that pursues its course to the dramatic close. It concludes a great work that ought to be in the repertoire of all violists.
 
The work was given its first performance by its dedicatee Watson Forbes, the violist and the pianist Denise Lassimoine.
 
The Horn Trio was commissioned by the pianist Colin Horsley and was duly composed in autumn 1952. It was first heard in a concert at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with Horsley and the legendary Denis Brain as two of the soloists. The Trio is written in three movements, with the final ‘tema and variations’ being as long as the first two movements put together.
 
I personally found that this was the most difficult work to get to grips with on this CD. I am not sure why, but I feel it may be to do with the dominance and depth of the horn tone throughout.
 
The first movement is more or less in sonata-form with a contrast between the strident opening theme based on rising fourths and the second subject which is altogether gentler and more lyrical. The middle movement, which is signed to be played ‘lento’, is the heart of the work. This movement is in ternary form and begins with a long withdrawn tune on the violin which is reiterated by the horn. The middle section opens out slightly to an impressive but sustained climax. The opening theme returns, but towards the end of the movement there are some overt allusions to the ‘trio’. It is extremely beautiful music.
 
The piano opens the proceeding of the final ‘Theme and Variations’. This is, as the sleeve-notes suggest, based on a ‘Mozartian’ theme presented at the start of the movement. The mood of the music has changed from the ‘lento’ and is largely more positive. However, there are some quieter moments such as the reflective soliloquy for horn against a ‘walking’ piano accompaniment. The sixth variation is attractive, but sometimes biting, waltz-like music that acts as a foil to the deeper moments still to come. The seventh variation is the critical to this work - heart-rending, poignant and profound. The penultimate variation is an energetic ‘gigue’ which leads to the subdued close -except for the concluding chords!
 
The final work on this CD is the important Quintet, Op. 90 for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano. This was written towards the end of Berkeley’s composing career in 1975; although he lived to 1989, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of his life.
 
The composer has stated that this four movement work is in ‘a modified traditional form.’ Richard Whitehouse has also noted the influence of a ‘subtle deployment of serial elements [to] enrich his musical vocabulary’. Certainly the language of this work is a long way removed from the other works on this disc. However, the inherently lyrical, thematic development and rhythmic interest are always present. The sound-world is complex, with excellent use of instrumental colouring. I had not heard this work before, and I guess that I was concerned that the combination of instruments may prove a little ponderous. I need not have worried. If the listener needs any convincing about the viability of this grouping they should listen to the second movement ‘scherzo’. This is vibrant, subtle and constantly varying music that exploits the timbres of the instruments to the maximum degree. The ‘trio’ is particularly attractive. The ‘traditional’ slow movement is replaced by a somewhat lugubrious ‘intermezzo’ with interplay and interconnection between all the instruments including references to the first movement. The piano has an attractive role here. A quiet reflective moment leads into the final allegretto which has the form of a ‘theme and variations’. This is energetic and sometimes troubled music that is a little eclectic in styles and mood. Occasionally the music seems to run away with itself before being brought to book. The final bars are quite exhausting.  

The Quintet was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center and was composed during the winter of 1975.  

I mentioned above that Lennox Berkeley’s chamber music was a largely unknown quantity to me. However, after listening to this disc twice, I have three things to note. Firstly, I was impressed with the playing on this disc: the balance between enthusiasm and concentration, exuberance and reflection is entirely appropriate. Secondly, that all four pieces on this disc present a rounded picture of the composer, from the ‘early’ Sonatina (1939) to the late Quintet (1975). Each work reveals a facet of the composer - whether it is his love of Mozart, the influence of ‘Les Six’, the use of serialism or the exploitation of a jolly good tune, it presents interesting and ultimately moving music. Thirdly, like so much British music, these pieces seem to languish on the fringes of the repertoire. This is wrong - these are great works - if not masterpieces - that reveal the creativity and invention of one of Britain’s most competent composers.  

John France  


 


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