Monday, 10 March 2008

Lennox Berkeley: Mazurka Op.101b

I was flicking through Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Collected Works for Solo Piano’ and was lamenting how much of this great music is well beyond my technique. However I was pleasantly surprised to come across one small piece that is within my gift – the Mazurka Op.101b. It is rated at about Grade 6!
Now, I always recall a pianist telling me that if a piece is easy to play it is hard to interpret – and I guess this applies to the Mazurka. However I was able to get my fingers round the notes and I discovered a pleasant and enjoyable piece.

The Mazurka was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Haydn. Berkeley was one of six composers who were invited to write a combined ‘Homage to Haydn.' The other five were George Benjamin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, John McCabe and Edmund Rubbra.

Berkeley chose to write a ‘Polish’ dance – which as far as I am aware was not one of Haydn’s chosen dance forms! However Berkeley had already nodded to Chopin with a set of Three Mazurkas written in 1949 to celebrate the Chopin death centenary. And of course Chopin was an influence on much of Berkeley’s more ‘advanced’ piano music too.

The Mazurka is very short. It lasts a little under two minutes. But into that time there is considerable variety and invention. The piece opens with a Scottish accent – at least there is a scotch snap! It could be argues that this piece is written in ‘salon style – but I feel that would be slightly dismissive. This is a work that displays a sense of purpose: it is written with clarity. A bitter-sweet tension emerges as the composer explores a variety of keys and strength of dissonance in a short space of music. The scotch snap recurs to bring the miniature to an end.
The Mazurka is well played by Len Vorster on a Naxos recording of the composer’s works.

The pieces was first performed in a broadcast by John McCabe on 18th March 1982 London BBC Studios. It was one of the last that Lennox Berkeley wrote before illness caused him to largely cease composing. 
For the curious, the Op.101 was a Bagatelle for two pianos and four hands from 1981. And finally, as far as I am aware, apart from the present work, only the offering by Edmund Rubbra to the Homage collection is available on Dutton.

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