The Sonatina was composed shortly
after he had completed his operas A Dinner Engagement, op.45 and Nelson,
op.41. Other pieces written at this time include the incidental music to
Goethe’s play, Iphigenia in Taurus, the motet Crux fidelis,
op.43, no.1 and the anthem Look up, Sweet Babe, op.43, no.2.
Alec Rowley in Musical Times (December 1954, p.660) succinctly summed up Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina: “a minimum of notes, [and] refinement of taste […] in texture, it is a true Sonatina, and in appearance, ingenuous and stark in outline.” This bleakness becomes less fearsome on repeated hearings. In fact, there is significant warmth and elegance in much of this refreshing music. The three nicely contrasted movements feature lively syncopation in the opening Allegro moderato, well-considered lyricism in the Andante, and a conclusion with a definite nod to Poulenc in the Allegro finale.
The first London performance was given at the Wigmore Hall, by Uza Fuchsova and Paul Hamburger on 18th January 1955. A wide-ranging recital included Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67 and Schubert’s Variations on a Theme from Hérold's 'Marie', Op. 82, No. 1 (D.908). There were other works by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Moszkowski. The only other modern piece was Peter Racine Fricker’s Nocturne and Scherzo, long since disappeared from the repertoire.
The Times (24 January 1954, p.3) reviewer was impressed by the Berkeley duet: “In his Sonatina Berkeley again revealed his blessedly welcome gift of never writing a note too many, either from viewpoint of length or clarity of texture. All three movements were most cunningly disposed for the four hands, particularly the limpid middle Andante.”
Equally complimentary was the brief assessment by
Mosco Carner in the Daily Telegraph (19 January 1955, p.8): “[The]
Sonatina was terse in expression without being blunt, admirably clear in form
and transparent in sonority. The last movement in particular, with its discrete
contrapuntal interest was a model of four-hand piano writing.”
Donald Mitchell in the Musical Times (March
1955, p.151) reported that “Lennox Berkeley's three-movement Sonatina sounded
marvellous throughout and its invention was as crisp as its textures. The work
offered Mr. Berkeley's customary charm and elegance but perhaps rather less
than his usual amount of memorable composition.”
Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina for piano duet, op.39 can be heard in live performance on YouTube here. The soloists are not credited in the video.