Lennox Berkeley
Sinfonia concertante, Op.84 *
Symphony No.3
Michael Berkeley
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra *
Secret Garden
Nicholas Daniel (oboe) *

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Recorded 27 & 28 October 2001 in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10022
Duration: 78 minutes
Reviewed: January 2003
Powerful and concentrated, Lennox Berkeley’s Third Symphony says more in 15 minutes than a lot of works playing for much longer. As ever, the craftsmanship is impeccable. For all Berkeley’s exterior control there’s no doubting the symphony’s vivid and sympathetic discourse, whether in taut rhythms, passionate declamation or long-lined melodies that breathe from purer climes. It’s a great piece and good to have a second recording following the composer’s own on Lyrita. Comparisons aren’t necessary. That premiere recording has a particular stamp. Richard Hickox finds more phrasal possibilities in the violins’ figuration early on, while the composer remains a convincingly stoical guide to the build-up and release of the final section.
The composer was given a close, rather dry recording; Chandos provide something more recessed and spacious. This can be a little difficult to adjust to if the Lyrita taping is ingrained; so too some of Hickox’s balances. But the question really is why Berkeley’s Third isn’t standard repertoire? I only know for certain of Sir Charles Groves and AndrĂ© Previn conducting it. Written for the 1969 Cheltenham Festival, this is music demanding to be played and appreciated; when you’ve only got one view to hear, even if it is the composer’s, there’s a real need for a fresh take; therefore, Hickox is very welcome.
The Sinfonia concertante is from 1973. It’s outwardly cool exterior, and the chamber textures (with a substantive contribution for the piano), are a channel for some very moving invention – the oboe’s first entry is unexpected and ravishes the senses as we are taken to personal places, ones we identify with, share, and take comfort from. This is particularly true of the slow movements, not least the haunting ’Aria’. Following this haven of remembrance, the gently curving melody of the ’Canzonetta’ lightens the mood exquisitely and reminds of Berkeley’s French sympathies. The more diverse ’Finale’ and second movement ’Allegro’ are the most soloistic – Nicholas Daniel revels! This score – with a rare economy but no diminution of susceptibility – is to be treasured and returned to.
Lennox Berkeley’s friendship with Benjamin Britten is musically testified to with shared references to the ’magical’ properties of music. Lennox’s son, Michael, continues the connection in his oboe concerto – the last movement being ’In memoriam’ to his godfather. Lamenting and pained, with some Lutoslawskian clusters, the first movement of this nearly thirty-minute concerto (two slow ones enclosing a scherzo) has a faster middle, reminding of Shostakovich, with some very attractive pre- and post-cadenza rapture. A sprite dances through the ’Scherzo’, one capable of turning to more pastoral piping in this very enjoyable movement. The spare and moving Britten tribute that follows is an openly expressed lament that gathers in consolation and intensity; the closing reference to Britten’s War Requiem is ingenuously introduced. Daniel is a vibrant, eloquent soloist, with tonal resources covering trumpet to cor anglais, in these two works originally written for Janet Craxton.
Secret Garden, composed for the LSO and Colin Davis, begins with fanfares that have a sting in the tail, a sarcastic edge – a metaphor for life turning sour? The ’garden’ teems with notes, varied character and many colours. After the maybe-too-extended proliferating fanfare, flute and harp, then oboe and snapping trumpets, snaking woodwinds and expansive strings establish the soundworld if not necessarily setting the course for the brilliant conclusion. Initial acquaintance with Secret Garden finds much aural enchantment countered by an uncertain handle on what seems a sectional structure.
Roll on Volume 3. Maybe Michael’s Gregorian Variations and Lennox’s Dialogue for cello and orchestra will be given their first recordings!

 

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