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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Stabat Mater, Op 28 (1947) [32:17]
Mass for Five Voices, Op 64 (1964) [13:45]
Judica me, Op 96 No 1(1978) [7:19]
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Touch Light (2005) [7:35]
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery; Berkeley Ensemble/David Wordsworth
rec. 26-29 March 2016, The Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34180 [60:59]

Religious music was an important strand in Lennox Berkeley’s compositional output – he became a Roman Catholic in 1929 – though it was only in the 1940s that he started to compose music for liturgical use.

One of his most important religious works was his setting of the Stabat Mater. I’m not entirely sure if the present recording is its first – in his excellent notes David Wordsworth says it has “never [been] recorded on CD” - but I rather suspect this is the first recording. On the face of it that’s a surprise since the work is eloquent and important. However, Wordsworth tells us that the score was neglected after a 1953 Aldeburgh Festival performance until the mid-1970s so it clearly fell out of fashion. I wonder if part of the reason is the forces required. It is scored for six voices (SSATBB) and I’m sure it could only be performed by six solo voices – and very good ones at that - since a larger group of singers would upset the equilibrium with the accompaniment. The instrumental forces comprise a woodwind quintet, string quartet, double bass, harp and percussion. It seems to me that one of Berkeley’s many achievements in this score is to transcend the ‘limitations’ of the fairly small forces; often the work seems to be a bigger piece.

The medieval Latin text is here divided into ten short movements. Berkeley varies his forces imaginatively so that the full ensemble is only needed in the first and last movements. Elsewhere there are two movements for vocal quartet. There’s a duet for two sopranos in the second movement and for the rest solo voices are employed. I mentioned Berkeley’s ability to make his music sound bigger than the forces involved. We get a case of that in the opening movement. Here, after a somewhat cool instrumental introduction the writing becomes altogether more intense, especially at the passage beginning ‘Cujus animam gementem’.

Later on, the fourth movement ‘Pro peccatis’ is sung by a vocal quartet and the writing for both the singers and instrumentalists is very dramatic; there’s plenty of tension in both the music and the performance. The following movement, ‘Eia, Mater’ is a tenor solo containing music of intense lyricism. Benedict Hymas does this very well indeed. There’s plangent and strongly focused singing from Rory McCleery in the seventh movement, an alto solo (‘Fac me tecum pie flere’). The section that follows, ‘Virgo virginum praeclara’ is for SATB quartet and the instruments are silent for almost the entire movement; here the vocal writing features very close harmonies. The last movement, ‘Christe, cum sit hinc exire’, reunites the full ensemble, starting with an extended instrumental introduction – as in the opening section. Here the singers exhibit great commitment, delivering a deeply-felt performance. For the last minute or so the music becomes much more subdued and attains a gentle radiance which brings the work to a very satisfying conclusion.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the Stabat Mater before but I have no hesitation in saying that it’s a marvellous work. Berkeley responds to the text with great feeling and sensitivity and though inevitably the tone is very serious there’s no want of variety in the music. The score’s cause is helped by the fact that it receives a searing and expert performance. This may be the work’s debut on disc but it’s been worth the wait to hear it in a performance of such quality.

The Mass for Five Voices (SSATB), in which the Marian Consort is directed by Rory McCleery, was composed for the choir of Westminster Cathedral in 1964. David Wordsworth points out that its composition came during an extended period in which Berkeley “experimented liberally with twelve-note procedures”. Perhaps that accounts for the austere, even astringent nature of some of the writing. I would imagine that the Westminster choir found it a challenge although doubtless the challenges were successfully met under the guidance of Colin Mawby, then the Director of Music. The music is often unsettled and I have to say that I found it music that I admired but did not find it easy to come to terms with. I rather suspect I would find it easier to assimilate if the movements were heard individually in a liturgical context. The movement which exerted the strongest appeal for me was the Agnus Dei where the writing has a grave beauty and achieves a very gratifying sense of repose.

A much stronger appeal to the senses is exerted by the a capella motet Judica me (SSATBB) which was composed for the 1978 Three Choirs Festival. This is a setting of verses from Psalm 42. David Wordsworth rightly draws attention to echoes of Poulenc, especially near the start. The harmonies are often searching, though often warm, and the vocal lines flow beautifully. I imagine that the piece was intended for performance by a full choir – probably at Evensong – but the use of just six voices here ensures that the part writing is heard with tremendous clarity. For the most part the music is reflective and prayerful in tone though Berkeley is briefly joyful at ‘Confitebor tibi in cithara, Domine’ (‘I will sing your praises on the cithara, O God’). This lovely piece receives a super performance here. My only slight regret is that the companion piece, Ubi caritas et amor was not also included – the two were published together as Op. 96.

To complete the programme we hear a single work by Lennox Berkeley’s son, Michael. Touch Light, for which he provided his own text, was written for the Tetbury Festival in 2005 to celebrate a marriage. It’s scored for soprano and alto soloists (ZoŽ Brookshaw and Rory McCleery) and string quintet. This is the only piece on the disc for which the text is not, at first sight, provided. In fact, it’s contained within the notes, so all is well. The two singers are given rapturous lines to sing against what is a kind of ground bass accompaniment from the strings. Here, the singing is ecstatic, both soloists offering great intensity. This piece by Berkeley fils is a fine complement to his father’s music.

This is a very important disc in that it presents an unjustly neglected English vocal work of the highest quality; furthermore, the performance is superb. Indeed, all are top quality and if my admiration is greatest for the setting of Stabat Mater the music that constitutes the remainder of the programme is also distinguished. Previously I’ve only heard The Marian Consort in Tudor consort music but here they prove themselves equally adept in twentieth century repertoire while the Berkeley Ensemble make a fine contribution also.

It’s very fitting that the recording should have been made at the Snape Maltings for it was Benjamin Britten who prompted Berkeley to write the Stabat Mater. Many of the previous Delphian discs I’ve heard have been recorded in churches but the results obtained in this secular venue are just as impressive. The sound is clear, vivid and expertly balanced.

Admirers of Lennox Berkeley’s music should put this disc at the top of their shopping list

These artists will be offering a rare chance to hear a live performance of the Stabat Mater in a concert at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Sunday, 17 July 2016. The programme will also include Touch Light: (details here).

John Quinn



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