Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Chamber Works for Wind, Strings & Piano
Trio for flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais and piano (1935) String Trio Op.19 (1943) Sonatina for oboe and piano Op.61 (1962) Oboe Quartet Op.70 (1967) Suite for flute, oboe and string trio (1930) Tagore String Trio: Frances Mason (violin) Brian Schiele (viola) James Halsey (cello) Sarah Francis (oboe/cor anglais) Judith Fitton (flute/piccolo) Michael Dussek (piano)

Any new CD of music by Lennox Berkeley is to be greatly welcomed. However, this is doubly the case when two of the works are ‘World Premiere Recordings’. This is a CD to be savoured rather than consumed at a single sitting. Although it is not essential, I would suggest listening to this disc in chronological order. I have reviewed the works accordingly. The first two are premiere recordings.

The earliest piece on this CD is the acerbic Suite for Flute (Piccolo) Oboe (Cor anglais), Violin, Viola and Cello. This work was composed after four years of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Yet there is little of French sophistication about this piece. The model would appear to be neo-baroque with nods to Stravinsky. Six movements make up this considerable Suite. After a short introduction, complete with the ‘dotted notes’ of a typical French ‘Overture,’ a rather piquant ‘pastorale’ leads into a stately and quite dissonant ‘galliard.’ The ‘passepied’ is nonchalant in comparison to the foregoing.  I loved the ‘aria’, which anticipates much of Berkeley’s later music: this is certainly the coolest part of this work. The Suite concludes with an attractive, ‘breezy’ hornpipe.

Chronologically, the next work to consider is the Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano. Peter Dickinson, in the liner notes has suggested that this is the ‘main discovery’ of the present disc. The work was composed in 1935 for the Sylvan Trio, who subsequently broadcast the work in 1936 and continued to give numerous performances.  Although the Trio was revived for the composer’s 75th birthday celebrations it was not issued as a commercial recording.
The Trio is presented in four brief movements. The opening ‘Prelude’ sets the scene with an attractive melody that is accompanied by a florid, almost romantic, piano part. There is a subtle balance between harsh and soft dissonances that inform this musical texture of this movement. The following ‘allegro’ is a rapid, almost compulsive little toccata. However the middle eight’ has a lovely ‘cantabile’ oboe melody. Dickinson has suggested that the Caribbean is not too far away from the more laid back ‘moderato’.  Certainly this music is infused with the mood of an afro-Cuban rumba which dominates the proceedings. However the mood changes completely with the ensuing ‘fugue.’ Bach would seem to be the model here rather than the dance bands. 
This is a major work that deserves to be in the repertoire. It is unbelievable that it has taken some 77 years to be issued as a recording.

The String Trio of 1943/44 is a neo-classical work. The first movement is a ‘moderato’ written in sonata form. There is a good contrast between the irregular rhythm of the second subject and the ‘languid lyricism’ of the opening theme.  The ‘adagio’ is the heart of the work; it is written in ternary form. This is deeply-felt music that reflects wartime concerns and tragedies. However, this mood is swept away by the final ‘allegro’ which is a good old fashioned rondo. It is vibrant music that balances ‘rumbustiousness’ with episodes that are more serious in their effect.  The overall impression of the work is of a stylistic tension between a Gallic influence and nods to Mozart. The Trio was dedicated to Frederick Grinke, Watson Forbes and James Phillips.

The Oboe Sonata was composed for Janet Craxton and her brother, the artist John Craxton. Peter Dickinson reminds us that the work was premiered by Craxton and Alan Richardson at the Wigmore Hall on 19 November 1962. As an aside, it is surely time that the works of this accomplished composer (Richardson) and pianist were rediscovered.
One feature of the Oboe Sonata is the use of a tone-row or series in the opening movement. However, this constructional tool is soon abandoned and the composer appears to resort to more traditional methods of musical invention and formal design. The first movement is a little gem. Two excellent themes are developed in a largely sonata form structure. One is flowing and the other languid. The ‘andante’ display music that is profound beyond that expected in a ‘sonatina.’ However the final allegro dispels any mood of despair with exciting, cheerful music interspersed with more reflective moments.

My personal favourite work on this CD is the Oboe Quartet, which is chronologically the latest on this CD. The work is quite short, lasting some fifteen minutes. The structure is unusual insofar as the final movement is an ‘andante’ with the ‘presto’ taking the place of a scherzo. The opening ‘moderato’ manages to balance reflective music with considerable angst in a traditionally thought out sonata form. The ‘andante’ is heartfelt music that contrasts totally with the incandescent middle movement. The music is here songlike and manages to fade away to nothing.
The Oboe Quartet was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The work was not formally dedicated to the well-known oboist Janet Craxton, however it was written with her in mind as the soloist.  The work was given its premiere by the London Oboe Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on 22 May 1968.

This is altogether an impressive CD that showcases the achievement of Lennox Berkeley over a period of more than a third of a century. It is a ‘must’ for all enthusiasts of English chamber music.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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