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<<  -- 2 --  Peter Dickinson    A REVELATION


Although some of the early works from the 1920s and 30s have been revived and recorded, Berkeley's real stature was established in 1940 with the Serenade for Strings, a classic in this medium. Many of his works are on this level through the 1960s. Orchestral pieces such as the first Symphony and the Divertimento in B flat; the concertos for solo piano and for two pianos; chamber works such as the Flute Sonatina, String Quartets Nos 2 and 3, String Trio and Horn Trio; a rich legacy of piano music, arguably the finest from any British composer, now available in a new collected edition; works for guitar, including the late concerto for Julian Bream; and songs, both individual ones and cycles to both English and French texts.

Although Berkeley excelled in short pieces, he was thoroughly at home on a large canvas, such as the first movement of Symphony No 1, the scherzo of the Divertimento, the spacious theme and variations which forms the last movement of the two-piano concerto, or some of the operatic ensembles. What unites his music for all media is his individual use of melody and harmony often with a light touch. It is not surprising that Britten admired his harmonic palette and Boulanger said he had no need to attend harmony classes, although she put him through her usual penitential exercises in strict counterpoint. Like most composers of his generation Berkeley owed something to Stravinsky but his roots go further back to Mozart and Bach. His operatic command of ensembles where each character takes an individual line stems from Mozart and it is his love of counterpoint that goes back to Bach.

Those who know Berkeley's music find a spiritual depth, which has drawn listeners to John Tavener, a Berkeley pupil, or Arvo Pärt. Berkeley was brought up as an Anglican but became a Roman Catholic in his mid-twenties. Nowadays his liturgical music makes regular appearances in cathedral service lists to the point where he is almost as familiar as Britten or Howells. Berkeley's religious faith was at the core of his life and work and his sacred music is an essential part of this. There is a perceptible difference between composers setting religious texts through commission or tradition and those for whom every word is part of a living faith. Berkeley belongs to the second category and the spiritual sources of his music are evident even in his purely instrumental slow movements. Often these consist of perfectly poised melodies which are particularly memorable. Examples include the slow movements of the Flute Sonatina; the String Trio and the Piano Concerto; the last of the Six Preludes; or, much earlier, the second of the Three Pieces, Op 2. Vocal melodies with the same personal qualities include the central section of the Festival Anthem -- the G major setting of a George Herbert poem, also arranged for cello and piano and for organ -- songs and arias from the operas and pre-eminently the third of the St Teresa poems. Berkeley's Sacred Choral Music forms the basis of a fine Naxos CD (8.557277) with the choir of St John's College, Cambridge, under Christopher Robinson. The Festival Anthem is a major work, amply confirmed when it was included in the special evensong from King's College Chapel on 23 April with all the service music by Lennox and Michael Berkeley. Another special occasion was the Memorial Requiem Mass for Sir Lennox Berkeley at Westminster Cathedral on 28 November, which followed the Society's Third Annual General Meeting.

On 8 October BBC Radio 3 put on a Kathleen Ferrier night. This well-structured programme included a rediscovered recording of Ferrier singing the Teresa of Avila songs with the LSO under Hugo Rignold. Unlike the performance on the BBC Artium LP released in 1979 the sound is remarkably good and one can see even better what special qualities Ferrier brought to this profoundly expressive music. Earlier, BBC Radio 3 put on a Lennox Berkeley Evening nine days after the centenary on 21 May. Petroc Trelawney steered a programme which offered abundant chatter, some memorable readings from letters of Berkeley and Britten, well chosen by Tony Scotland, and ended with an old BBC recording of parts of A Dinner Engagement. Trelawney also chaired a productive afternoon study session at Cheltenham on 20 July, which contained a showing of the ATV film featuring Lennox and Michael Berkeley.

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Copyright © 7 December 2003 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK


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