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
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
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
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
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