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Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Winter Fragments
Catch Me If You Can (1994) [14.00]
Clarinet Quintet (1983) [14.03]
Winter Fragments (1996) [15.03]
Sonnet for Orpheus, from Three Rilke Sonnets (2010) [7.26]
Seven (2007) [8.23]
Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano)
Berkeley Ensemble/Dominic Grier
rec. 2018, The New Maltings, Alpheton, UK
Texts and English translations provided.
RESONUS RES10223 [59.03]

The Resonus label has issued an outstanding album containing five of Michael Berkeley’s chamber works. Recorded and released in 2018, the year of the composer’s seventieth birthday, the works on the album span a period of nearly thirty years. My interest in Michael Berkeley’s music was sparked by ‘The Berkeley Edition’ a six-volume series on Chandos – a combination of works by father and son Lennox and Michael Berkeley. In 2016 I warmly welcomed an album of sacred choral works from Lennox and Michael on Delphian Records. I also recall having attended performances of Michael’s chamber works at Kendal, Cumbria, as part of Lake District Summer Music.

The opening work Catch Me If You Can for wind quintet is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon with the flautist also playing piccolo and alto flute. Written in 1994 specifically for the Haffner Wind Quintet to perform in schools, the work is part of a group associated with or inspired by children’s behaviour and games, including the opera BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP and the solo viola piece Odd Man Out. With a fast-slow-fast design in the manner of a Sonatina this is a generally excitable, rather scuttling score and, as the marking Mesto directs, the slow movement has a distinct melancholic quality. The earliest work on the album, from 1983, is the Clarinet Quintet scored for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello. A commission by the Battle Festival Society the work was premièred the same year by Andrew Marriner and the Fairfield Quartet. The foundation for the music is a “tune suggested by melodies and rhythms of sixteenth-century carols and lullabies.” In this fourteen-minute score the strings are handled as a distinct concertante group to the clarinet part played here impeccably by John Slack. Under restless and energetic figures, a dark undertow of unease and suspicion imbues the writing. From 6.25 the music slows to reveal a bleak, rather desolate landscape. The plaintive cello from 9.32-12.10 portrays an anguished sense of struggle.

The first performance of song cycle Winter Fragments was given in 1996 at The Purcell Room, London, by the Nash Ensemble, who commissioned it, mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby and conducted by Thomas Adès. The title Winter Fragments was inspired by an opera project Berkeley was considering at the time, based on the Shakespeare play The Winter’s Tale. Another stimulus was the Welsh winter landscape where the score was chiefly composed. Winter Fragments is scored for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, flute, oboe, harp and string trio. These seven brief and sparse pieces connect to depict the character of the winter season. Berkeley uses both lines and thoughts from poets Shakespeare, Longfellow, David Malouf, James Thomson and Shelley, as well as creating his own miniatures. Mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron accompanied by the woodwind and string septet certainly evokes a raw cold winter with a sense of unease never far away. Throughout, Barron is in engaging voice and especially striking in song number six, Silent and Soft, where a strong sense of longing emerges out of the winter chill.
For his setting of the Three Rilke Sonnets, Berkeley was inspired by soprano Claire Booth’s singing at a Nash Ensemble Prom. He selected texts with a theme of loss by Rainer Maria Rilke “for its elliptical and elusive language.” Berkeley keeps the original German, as he believes no English translation does the meaning justice. Performed here is Sonnet for Orpheus the second of the Three Rilke Sonnets. The mournful solo cello, often in its lowest register, intertwines beautifully with mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron singing with a subdued tone, creating an aching sense of longing for a loved one in a rather tense and unsettling atmosphere. Serving as a guide is an English translation given in the booklet. Scored for seven woodwind and string players Seven is based on the work Second Still Life for oboe and harp written for the 2007 Presteigne Festival. Berkeley developed the original material and with contrasting instruments maintains the uncomplicated form. Reminding me of Poulenc on occasions, this stylish work draws me into the intriguing and individual sound world. Seven is an uncomplicated and assured work of rather plaintive writing, with a measured repetition that feels warm and comfortable.

The sound quality has pleasing clarity and balance, quite close and reasonably bright. The booklet takes the form of an interview with Michael Berkeley, an approach that doesn’t especially appeal to me. I’m delighted to report that sung texts and English translations are provided in the booklet. For those new to Michael Berkeley’s music this album, predominantly tense and melancholic with a winter chill never far away, is probably not the best place to start. I would suggest The Berkeley Edition on Chandos as the best for newcomers. Nevertheless, Winter Fragments does justice to Berkeley’s music.
Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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