Some personal reflections on the Lennox Berkeley Centenary from PETER DICKINSON
In many ways 2003 has been a centenary year worthy of Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) who made such a unique contribution to twentieth-century British music. Composers need outstanding interpreters who understand the music and can realise all its implications in performance. Berkeley wrote for many of the finest performers of his time but, of the present generation of conductors, Richard Hickox is now fulfilling this role in the fine series of Chandos recordings devoted to father and son, Lennox and Michael. Earlier recordings of works such as the Serenade for Strings and the Third Symphony, both under Berkeley himself, were valuable at the time and some have been transferred to CD. These are naturally of documentary value but the insight of a later generation has given a new thrust to Berkeley's personal language. Hickox has also directed many fine live performances including the double bill of operas, which triumphantly concluded the Cheltenham Festival on 20 July. The semi-staged performance of Ruth, based on the Old Testament story was a revelation, although I had seen the original production in 1956 and the Cheltenham Festival revival in 1983. Under Hickox the vivid choruses of reapers, with the well-named Joyful Company of Singers, formed an ideal backcloth to admirably characterised roles by Pamela Helen Stephen (Ruth) and Mark Tucker (Boaz). The story proceeds at a contemplative pace with opportunities for expressive arias en route, all in Berkeley's most suave melodic vein. Ruth was preceded by A Dinner Engagement, the sparkling one-act comedy which, in spite of valiant and mostly successful attempts to deliver the text, suffered from the cavernous acoustic of Cheltenham Town Hall. Both these operas are about marriage -- Ruth serious, directly expanding the religious idiom of the Four Poems of St Teresa, and A Dinner Engagement witty throughout in a tradition that goes back to French opera comique and Gilbert and Sullivan. In both works the handling of the chamber orchestra is masterly and the scores are replete with memorable tunes. Fifty years after they were written these two operas have been recorded and will be appearing in the Berkeley Edition series on Chandos. The same team, with Jean Rigby replacing the indisposed Pamela Helen Stephen, gave the two operas again at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House on Sunday 28 September, put on by the Park Lane Group. This time A Dinner Engagement came first and its jokes came across better in a more intimate setting.
Berkeley's spacious choral and orchestral Magnificat represented him at the Proms on 5 September. As in the 1968 première under the composer in St Paul's Cathedral, the three choirs involved were those of St Paul's, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. This time Richard Hickox conducted and immediately plunged in by taking the opening section at a faster tempo than the composer's marking. This worked very well and offset the more meditative moments later on, where the concert work shares the qualities of some of the liturgical music. The Aldeburgh Festival, where Britten put on more works by his friend Berkeley than by any other British composer, offered the Five Poems of W H Auden, sung by Robert Tear with Stacey Bartsch in Blythburgh Church. To hear the Auden songs at their best, turn to the reissued recording by Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford now on Naxos (8.557204). The first of the songs is taken faster than usual but the group as a whole is done with real distinction. The first recording of the Auden songs was made by Thomas Hemsley in 1960. Since this has now been reissued on CD, it may be fair to say that I discovered from Hemsley himself only a year or two ago that, as a result of a misunderstanding, he had received the score only on the morning of the recording!
Aldeburgh represented Berkeley again in the October Britten Festival when Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips gave a dynamic performance of the Viola and Piano Sonata in the Jubilee Hall on 26 October. This sombre and demanding work written near the end of the war would have seemed distinctly modern to audiences at that time and has not yet had its due.
There is no longer any need to dwell on Berkeley's perfectly assimilated French connections, although his friendships with Ravel and Poulenc were influential. Berkeley was partly French anyway and, like Copland, found in Nadia Boulanger the ideal teacher and in Paris a stimulating place in which to develop. No need either to emphasise Berkeley's aristocratic ancestry -- his near-miss earldom -- or his reserved and modest personality, even though the picture of the man, which is emerging from the book by Tony Scotland now in progress, is complex and intriguing. The music is what counts and it includes a series of works which are coming to be recognised as masterpieces, with every note in the right place and every nuance calculated to perfection -- like Mozart, whom Berkeley idolised.
Copyright © 7 December 2003
Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK