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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
The Complete Piano Works
Douglas Stevens (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Bowerman Hall, Monkton Combe School, Bath, UK
HOXA HS180618 [59:19 + 53:32]

Most Lennox Berkeley aficionados will see this as splendid opportunity for a comprehensive evaluation of his piano music. Crucially, to enjoy this release one needs some thought and planning. It is not an album to listen through. Forty-seven tracks, no matter how good the music, will soon cause even the most enthusiastic Berkeley fans’ eyes to glaze over – if that is not a mixed metaphor. It will all collapse into a neo-classical sameness. Moreover, it is not a fundamental criticism of Berkeley to suggest that there is a relative inequality between pieces – clearly some are better than others. But that will be for the listener to decide.

I guess I was disappointed that the works on this double CD are not presented in chronological order. I think this would have allowed a progressive approach to this diverse music without a lot of track switching.

I explored this CD by starting with the music that I know, and then worked through the rest in chronological order – slowly. Many of these pieces are short, often under two minutes or even under a minute. Several are grouped together, so I suppose that, as a golden rule, they should always be played as the set.

Many listeners of a certain age will hark back to the old Lyrita record (RCS 9) of Colin Horsley playing Berkeley’s piano music, issued in 1959. It featured the Piano Sonata, the Concert Studies, and the Six Preludes. I hope that Berkeley-ites will forgive me: I think these three works represent the best of the composer’s piano music. Other works on Horsley’s LP included the Scherzo Op. 32 No. 2, the Impromptu Op. 7 No. 1, and the Concert Study in E flat Op. 48 No. 2. It was reissued on CD in 2008 (REAM.2109) coupled with Arthur Benjamin’s piano pieces played by Lamar Crowson. Subsequent recordings of Berkeley’s piano music have tended to concentrate on those pieces, with several others thrown in for good measure. Yet, as the listener discovers the works on this present issue, some new treasures may be found, and become just a much a favourite as the Concert Studies and the Six Preludes.

I will not comment on every track. One of the highlights for me was the Toccata (1925) with its surprisingly urbane middle section. And then there are the Three Impromptus Op. 7 (1935) which balance an Iberian mood with the Paris of Fauré and Les Six. They make a great suite. The Sonata for piano is given an exemplary recital. I enjoyed the balance that Stevens has created between the lyrical, suave character of the first movement and the bustle of the second movement moto perpetuo. The contrast between this scherzo and the introverted adagio is skilfully handled. The last movement rondo presents a great example of seemingly controlled improvisation that is all strictly written down. This work was dedicated to Clifford Curzon. The last track on CD2, the Polka dating from 1934, should be on every pianist’s list of encores.

A small but important point: what is Scherzo Op. 37 No. 2 in the track listing? According to the Berkeley catalogue, Op. 37 is an a cappella choral piece, Spring at this Hour. It think it should be Op. 32 No. 2. And the Four Concert Studies are Op. 14 No. 1 and not Op. 24 No. 1. (Op. 24 is the Introduction and Allegro for solo violin.) I have not checked all the other works’ designations and dates against the catalogue.

Berkeley’s music often requires a delicate and incisive technique. Many pieces exploit lyrical elements, which makes them immediately approachable. Several of these works are neo-classical, some show romantic tendencies, others nod towards the French style of Les Six as well as a hint of serialism. A wide range of interpretive skills is required. Douglas Stevens finds this variety in his performances. He is a splendid advocate for Berkeley’s piano music. I guess the overarching aesthetic of much of Berkeley’s music is its cheerfulness and a good sense of humour. This is captured in many of these pieces.

The recording is fine, although sometimes just a little boxy, as if the recital room were too small. The liner notes, written by Douglas Stevens, are excellent. They include a short comment on the composer, followed by succinct notes about each work. There is the briefest biography of the pianist. I was disappointed by the CD cover and design. It is hardly inspiring and will be passed over in the browsers by all but the most wholehearted devotees of Berkeley’s music. The track listings printed in a tiny white font on a black background do not make for easy reading. And I am not sure about the artistic merits of the ‘face-off’ between composer and pianist printed on each disc.

Dr. Douglas Stevens studied music at the University of Bristol. His PhD, Lennox Berkeley: a critical study of his music, was completed in 2011. I wish it were available for study, not locked away in a library stack. Stevens is also a composer, with a wide variety of works including a violin sonata, two piano sonatas and several songs. He is currently Organist at the Chapel of All Saints at Wardour Castle in Wiltshire.

These CDs were first issued back in 2018 and apparently did not received much media attention. For example, there is no review on MusicWeb International or in The Gramophone magazine that I could locate. I sincerely hope that it will be more successful this time around.

John France


CD1
March (1924) [1:52]
For Vere (1927) [0.58]
Mr Pilkington’s Toye (1926) [1:20]
Six Preludes (1945) Op. 23 [11:43]
Sonata for Piano (1945) Op. 20 [26:07]
Concert Study in E flat (1955) Op. 48 No. 2 [2:20]
Three Pieces (1935) Op. 2 [6:10]
Prelude and Capriccio (1978) Op. 95 [6:10]
Toccata (1925) [3:37]
 
CD2
Three Impromptus (1935) Op. 7 [5:45]
Piano Pieces (1927) [5:13]
Five Short Pieces (1936) Op. 4 [5:27]
Four Concert Studies (1940) Op. 14 No. 1 [10:30]
Four Piano Studies (1972) Op. 82 [7:51]
Paysage (1944) [4:28]
Three Mazurkas (Hommage ŕ Chopin) (1949) Op. 32 No.1 [6:56]
Scherzo (1949) Op. 32 No. 2 [1:58]
Mazurka (1982) Op. 101. No. 2 [1:31]
Improvisation on a Theme of Manuel de Falla (1960) Op. 55 No. 2 [2:19]
Polka (1934) Op. 5 No. 1 (a) [1:32]



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