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Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Stabat Mater (1947) [32:57]
Mary Thomas, Barbara Elsey (sopranos); Maureen Lehane (contralto); Nigel Rogers (tenor); Christopher Keyte (baritone); Michael Rippon (bass)
Ambrosian Singers; Members of the English Chamber Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
rec. BBC broadcast, 1 March 1965, Friends’ House, London
Cantata, Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God (1962) [13:24]
Felicity Harrison (soprano); Donald Hunt (organ); BBC Northern Singers; Members of the BBC Northern Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley
rec. BBC broadcast, 29 October 1963 (UK premiere)
Magnificat (1967-68) [25:41]
Choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral; London Symphony Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley.
rec. BBC broadcast, 8 July 1968, St Paul’s Cathedral, London (premiere)
Texts and English translation (Stabat Mater and Magnificat) included

Little did I know when I reviewed the first recording of Berkeley’s Stabat Mater (Delphian) that another, archive recording would arrive so soon from Lyrita’s Itter treasure trove.

Although we’ve already reviewed a number of releases from this source it’s worth reiterating that these recordings were made off-air at his home by Richard Itter, the founder of Lyrita. He used high quality equipment and though some allowance needs to be made for the fact that the sound is decades old the overall quality is astonishingly high and Lyrita have transferred the recordings to disc very well. In short, though these present performances were recorded in the mid-1960s no one need have serious concerns on sonic grounds about acquiring the disc.

The Stabat Mater, composed at the instigation of Benjamin Britten, is a powerful and intense work. It’s scored for six singers (SSATBB) and an instrumental ensemble consisting of 12 players: woodwind quintet, string quartet, double bass, harp and percussion. As I said when writing of the Delphian recording, Berkeley transcends the ‘limitations’ of the fairly small forces; often the work seems to be a bigger piece. The score receives a taut, dramatic performance here. Norman Del Mar ensures that tension is generated from the start of the instrumental introduction and, once established, he never lets that tension dissipate. His singers offer powerful, committed contributions. Their voices sound bigger, more operatic even, than their Delphian counterparts. I suspect this is due to the fact that Delphian’s Marian Consort specialises in Renaissance music which, among other things, requires much less vibrato. In making this distinction I’m not implying a preference for either approach; both sets of singers are excellent. Incidentally one point of difference is that the Delphian performance features a male alto while Norman Del Mar has the services of a contralto. I’m slightly puzzled by the mention of the Ambrosian Singers. When I saw that in the track listing I wondered if Del Mar had opted for a larger group of singers in the first and last movements. He does not and I can only conclude that perhaps the six soloists were all members of that ensemble.

I enjoyed both accounts of the Stabat Mater. I’m not going to express a preference because I genuinely don’t have one. Each reading succeeds on its own terms and both conductors – David Wordsworth is in charge on Delphian – secure powerfully projected performances and bring Berkeley’s music vividly to life. The Stabat Mater is an important and eloquent score and both these performances do full justice to it. Admirers of the composer will want both.

Inevitably, Delphian’s modern digital recording has a considerable edge. The sound is clean and scrupulously balanced – the recording was made under studio conditions – and so the individual instrumental lines are even more easily discerned than is the case on the Lyrita issue. Del Mar’s singers are balanced a little bit more distantly – I noticed this, for instance, in the soprano duet ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’, though it’s not a major issue and the balance doesn’t in any way detract from the degree of feeling with which Mary Thomas and Barbara Elsey invest the music. I also liked the elegant singing of Christopher Keyte in ’Quis est homo’ while later Nigel Rogers is expressive in ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’. In truth, all the solos and ensembles go well in Del Mar’s performance. One small presentational difference is that on Delphian each of the ten movements is allocated a separate track whereas on Lyrita some of the shorter movements are paired and the work is divided into just seven tracks.

The Magnificat is on an altogether larger scale; it’s scored for a full orchestra for a start. What we have here is the first performance of the work, under the composer’s direction, in St Paul’s Cathedral with the participation of the choirs of London’s three cathedrals. The big, resonant acoustic of St Paul’s has an impact on the performance. I found that quite often in loud passages the inner choral parts were very indistinct and the sound of the orchestra often lacks ideal clarity. Nonetheless, Berkeley doesn’t allow the acoustic to blunt the vigour of the work’s opening section. The presence of boy trebles brings rewards. The sound of the boys’ voices has a good edge – essential in this acoustic – but what especially caught my ear was the ethereal quality of their sound in the ‘Esurientes’ section.

Some collectors may be familiar with another live performance of the Magnificat. This is a Proms performance given on 4 August 1969 and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult – was it the work’s second performance, I wonder? I have it on a CD issued many years ago by the Intaglio label (INCD 7281) though I suspect it’s now unobtainable. Boult has a much larger choir and his is SATB. I hear much more detail of the inner choir parts and of the orchestra. As a recording it’s preferable on balance to the St Paul’s performance, though I’m not sure the Intaglio transfer is as skilful. I also have the impression that Boult’s interpretation is a bit more taut than the composer’s – and not just because he takes some two minutes less than Berkeley. On the other hand, the Lyrita issue gives us the composer’s authority and it scores on a couple of presentational points: firstly, the work’s seven sections are divided into four tracks by Lyrita whereas Intaglio presents the piece on one track; secondly, the Lyrita documentation is infinitely superior. In any case, comparisons are only really relevant for people who already possess the Intaglio version.

If you want the cantata Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God I‘m not aware that there is any choice since I don’t believe there’s another available recording. Lyrita offer us a broadcast of the UK premiere, once again with the conductor on the rostrum. Paul Conway tells us in his notes that the performance was given on 19 October 1963 in the Great Hall of Leeds University; presumably the recording was transmitted 10 days later. It’s a powerful setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet No 14. This succinct, often impassioned piece and gets a powerful performance here – the opening section, for example, is very dramatic. Midway through the music relaxes for a soprano solo. It’s sung here – very well – by Felicity Harrison, a singer previously unknown to me. Her solo is complemented by a significant oboe part, which is very well played. Towards the end, there’s some strong fugal writing for the choir (‘Take me to you, imprison me’) which is incisively delivered by the BBC Northern Singers; this passage leads to an ecstatic climax before the music winds down to a tranquil conclusion. This piece was new to me and I found it impressive. The sound is somewhat boxy but perfectly acceptable.

The recent Delphian recording of the Stabat Mater is the obvious first choice for collectors because it’s a very fine performance indeed, presented in excellent modern sound. However, the Del Mar recording has a great deal to commend it. If you already possess the Boult recording of the Magnificat then, on balance, that’s the best choice but if you don’t have that in your library then choice is academic due to the unavailability (except at very silly prices) of copies nowadays. I’m in no doubt that Berkeley aficionados should acquire this new Lyrita disc, even if they own one of the other two discs. The inclusion of the John Donne cantata, otherwise unavailable, makes this a mandatory purchase.

I’ve commented already on the Lyrita sound quality, which showcases these recordings very well. I must not neglect to mention that Paul Conway’s notes are, as usual, exemplary. I hope there will be more Berkeley recordings from the Itter collection to follow up this highly desirable release.

John Quinn



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