Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Serenade for strings (1939) [12.46]
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Coronach (1988) [8.37]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli (1953) [18.30]
Little music for strings (1946) [10.29]
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, 18-19 May 1991
NIMBUS NI7082 [50.55]
This is a somewhat odd collection, because apart from the family relationship between the Berkeleys and their friendship with Benjamin Britten, the three composers represented here do not really have very much musically in common with each other. The earliest piece is Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade, one of his oldest pieces - composed at Britten’s home in Snape - which begins as a light-hearted divertimento-like effort before an unexpectedly slow finale. William Boughton and his players give a brisk and well-pointed account of the first three movements, but the small size of the string body means that despite a deeply felt reading the final Lento does not get the full measure of emotional weight which it really needs. Berkeley himself conducted a recording on Lyrita in 1975, but nowadays the best performance on disc comes as part of Richard Hickox’s Berkeley cycle on Chandos combining the music of both the father and son. In that survey we have a fully rounded and impassioned reading which effectively sweeps the board.
The same observation has to be made for Hickox’s performance of Michael Berkeley’s Coronach. This piece received its première recording on this disc, but Boughton rather hurries the score; Hickox takes nearly two minutes longer over what is after all a pretty short piece, and his players from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are able to give more expression to the music. This is really a very effective work, which explores the “emotions of loss and mourning” - to quote from Andrew Burn’s informative booklet note. It even quotes from the Scottish folksong The bonny Earl o’ Moray which the composer remembers from singing with his father as a child, but which is better-known to most listeners from its harrowing setting by Britten. This is music that really benefits from Hickox’s more expansive approach, although Boughton still brings plenty of feeling to the lament.
The two Tippett works also feature on Nimbus NI7026, which I have also reviewed on this site and which features more logical couplings with Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra and other choral pieces. This disc therefore falls into a rather awkward cleft stick. On the one hand, those who want the Tippett works - which are effectively done - will probably gravitate towards the all-Tippett disc. Those who want the pieces by Lennox and Michael Berkeley may well prefer the readings by Richard Hickox which take in the greater part of the orchestral music of both composers; Michael Berkeley is still very much active. Those who are attracted by the recording première of Coronach will want this release, but it is the shortest work here on a disc that nowadays seems rather meagre measure. It is really unfortunate then that this recording has been very much overtaken by later issues, because the performances and recordings themselves are excellent.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Very much overtaken by later issues though the performances and recordings themselves are excellent.