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Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Catch Me If You Can (1994) [14:00]
Clarinet Quintet (1983) [14:03]
Winter Fragments (1996) [15:03]
Sonnet for Orpheus (2010) [7:26]
Seven (2007) [8:23]
Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano)
Berkeley Ensemble/Dominic Grier
rec. 2018, The New Maltings, Alpheton Suffolk, UK
RESONUS RES10223 [59.03]

I remember well a Hyperion LP of chamber music of Gerald Finzi and Michael Berkeley (A66109) which was one of my favourite chamber music records and one I played a lot. I gave up hope of it ever being released on CD long ago, however, in looking it up I have found that Hyperion are now offering it as part of their Archive Service, so I will have to look into it further. I remember I bought it for the Finzi, but it was the Berkeley that I listened to and enjoyed most, and since then I have purchased a number of recordings of Berkeley’s music and found them all very rewarding.

Michael Berkeley had the perfect start in music, his father being the composer Lennox whilst his godfather was Benjamin Britten; he was a chorister at Westminster Cathedral and studied at the Cathedral Choir School before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite this, I was talking to a friend about his music, who was surprised to find out he was a composer; he thought he was just the presenter of Radio 3’s Private Passions, which he has hosted since 1995. The works presented on this disc represent twenty-seven years of Michael Berkeley’s career as a composer (1983 – 2010) and mark his different approaches to the art of composition, especially for the specific demands placed upon him by the commissioning body.

The first work on this disc is Catch Me If You Can which was specially written in 1994 for the Haffner Wind Quintet. The work comes from a group of pieces that revolve around childhood games, and the sense of fun and sometimes cruelty which can occur in them. It is filled with aspects of musical juxtaposition, where one theme is pitted against another; the opening is a clear indicator of this, as its rising theme on the flute is countered by a more sombre motif on the horn. This is a fascinating work and one which should shave a place in the pantheon of twentieth century works for the medium, as these contrasts make it a most attractive and at times amusing work. Indeed, the composer states that the work “immediately made me think of Leoš Janáček’s Mládi (Youth).”

The second work on this disc, the Clarinet Quintet of 1983, is the earliest work here and the only one that I had heard previously. It takes as its impetus melodies from sixteenth century choral works, the likes of which he would have come into contact with during his days as a chorister and builds an original tune that was influenced by these earlier pieces. Berkeley then develops this tune in various forms, both in the solo clarinet and the strings, giving it at times an almost klezmer feel which leads into a jazz-like tone. The central section with its long string section is quite lovely.

Winter Fragments dates from 1996 and was composed for the Nash Ensemble who with Jean Rigby as soloist gave the premiere conducted by Thomas Adčs. Its composition was prompted partly by a project Berkeley was working on at the time to compose an opera based upon Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and partly because it was written whilst the composer was at his Welsh farm during the frozen depths of winter. The seven movements set texts from various authors including from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the composer himself and from the libretto of the opera by David Malouf. The texts are quite effective in portraying the depths of winter, as is the music which is quite sparse and cold at times. My favourite is the third piece which sets text by the eighteenth century poet James Thomson which depicts a winter storm well, before a return to the calm of winter sunshine.

The ‘Sonnet for Orpheus’ comes from Three Rilke Sonnets, which was conceived after a conversation after a Prom by the Nash Ensemble, but unlike the Winter Fragments, Berkeley sets the German texts, thinking that no translation does the poetry justice. The piece is set here for mezzo and solo cello, although I thought it was originally for solo viola and mezzo, which gives it quite an ethereal feel, with the booklet notes describing it as “the most touching and lyrical moment on the disc …), it is certainly quite charming, but also chilling at the same time. A wonderful piece which leaves me wanting to hear the other two Rilke Sonnets.

The final work on the disc is Seven, set for the combination of flute, who also doubles on alto flute, oboe, clarinet, tam-tam, harp, violin and cello and is based upon Berkeley’s Second Still Life for oboe and harp, which he composed in the same year 2007. It is a slow and quite contemplative work which gave me the impression of the gentle ebb and flow of water; a truly charming piece it forms a fitting conclusion to this disc.

The music presented here is all approachable, despite its age it presents modern music, and Berkeley does have a modern approach in the way that he develops his required sound through sometimes unorthodox instrumental partnerships; it is music that is not difficult to listen to and is in fact quite rewarding – this disc makes me long for the Hyperion disc more and more.

The playing of the Berkeley Ensemble and friends is excellent throughout, they have a real sense of ensemble and understanding which is apparent from the outset. Fleur Barron has a lovely tone which is just right for the Winter Fragments, however, it is in the Rilke Sonnet that she really shines. The recorded sound is excellent, whilst the booklet notes come in the form of a conversation between Michael Berkeley and Dan Shilladay in which they discuss each of the pieces; this is not usually my favourite form of note writing, but here it is done very well indeed. This in essence is a wonderful disc, one which will give a great deal of pleasure, and one which leaves me longing for more.

Stuart Sillitoe

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