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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Pièce for flute clarinet and bassoon (1929) [2.50]
Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet, Op. 47 (1955) [14.39]
In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky: Canon for String Quartet (1971) [1.32]
Introduction and Allegro for double bass and piano (1971) [6.41]
String Trio, Op. 19 (1943) [15.49]
Three Pieces for solo viola (1971) [5.55]
Sonatine for clarinet and piano (1928) [12.11]
Berkeley Ensemble (Sophie Mather (violin); Dan Shilladay (viola); Gemma Wareham (cello); Lachlan Radford (double bass); John Slack (clarinet); Andrew Watson (bassoon); Paul Cott (horn)); John Loucks (violin); Sarah Bennington (flute); Libby Burgess (piano)
rec. 2014, St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, UK.

This release from the Berkeley Ensemble on Resonus Classics comprises seven chamber works. The Berkeley Ensemble was founded in 2008 by members of the Southbank Sinfonia taking its name from Sir Lennox Berkeley and son Michael Berkeley. It has the aim of “exploring the wealth of little-known twentieth and twenty-first century British chamber music alongside more established repertoire.” Here the members of the Berkeley Ensemble are augmented by an additional violin, a flute and a piano.

In 1926 on the advice of Maurice Ravel, Lennox Berkeley 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 often used euphemistically for saying ‘nice but not outstanding’. Berkeley composed elegant music with clear luminous textures, like brilliantly cut and polished gemstones. Nevertheless, I can understand claims that Berkeley’s themes are often short on memorable qualities and can lack variety, and also rarely expresses the extremes of emotion. He is something of a connoisseur’s choice. Some of his best regarded scores are his Serenade for Strings (1939), Guitar Concerto (1975), Sextet (1955), Concertino (1955) Missa Brevis, Op. 57 (1960), Mass for Five Voices, Op. 64 and his three String Quartets.

On this release the most considerable score is the Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet, Op. 47. Lasting some 15 minutes this three movement work was commissioned by the BBC for the 1955 Cheltenham Music Festival and premièred there by the Melos Ensemble. Marked Allegro moderato the opening movement is light in texture and predominantly introspective ending with a lovely clarinet solo. Mournful and sometimes wistful the central Lento is followed by a spirited Allegro displaying shades of the folk-dance. Another substantial score is the three movement String Trio, Op. 19 for violin, viola and cello which was composed in 1943. Dedicated to the chamber trio of Frederick Grinke, Watson Forbes and James Phillips they introduced the score in 1944 at Wigmore Hall. The nervy mood of the opening Moderato feels urgent and decisive and the following Adagio communicates melancholia with a curious sense of exhaustion. High spirits abound in the closing movement Allegro which is played with considerable vitality.

Composed in 1928 during the time Berkeley was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris the Sonatine for clarinet and piano is cast in three movements. With writing of engaging contrast the opening Moderato is sometimes playful and at other times reflective. Serious, becoming rather stern, bordering on angry, the Lento makes a considerable impact and the short closing Allegro contains upbeat writing that is jolly and effervescent. Another three movement score is the Three Pieces for solo viola which seems to have been written in 1971. Berkeley wrote it for a student of his Hungarian-born violist Stephan Deák, a Jewish refugee who had come to Britain in the 1950s. Extremely brief at just under a minute, the Moderato conveys a strange sense of inquisitiveness. Languid and weary in character the central Largo is followed by a closing Allegro which is rather brief with an unsettling temperament of turmoil. Taking just under seven minutes the Introduction and Allegro for double bass and piano was composed in 1971 for double bassist Rodney Slatford. In contrasting sections this colourful work certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. Opening the programme is the Pièce for flute, clarinet and bassoon. It's a cheerful and rather witty score from 1929 and lasts just under three minutes. The shortest work of all on the album is In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky: Canon for String Quartet. This runs to just a minute and a half. Berkeley wrote this deeply meditative elegy to commemorate Stravinsky’s death in 1971.

There is an unyielding assurance about the playing of the Berkeley Ensemble that belies the relatively young ages of its members. Impeccably prepared these fresh and firmly committed performances feel entirely in tune with Berkeley’s idiomatic sound world. The playing of the individual players evinces gratifying intonation and the overall unity of the group is wholly satisfying. The sound quality is satisfyingly clear and balanced. In addition the booklet essay is interesting and informative. It has been written by Tony Scotland the author of the biography ‘Lennox & Freda’ (2010). I notice the annotation states that the Pièce, In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky and Sonatine appear here in world première recordings. There is sufficient space to have included one of my favourite Berkeley works the Diversions for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quartet, Op. 63.

In short this delightfully played and recorded release is a credit to the Berkeley Ensemble. Its fresh and committed playing is like a breath of fresh air and I look forward to future releases.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Gary Higginson



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