Lennox Berkeley
Symphony No.4
Michael Berkeley
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Cello Concerto
Alban Gerhardt (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Recorded 17 & 18 December 2002, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10080
Duration: 65 minutes
Reviewed: June 2003
Chandos’s wonderful survey of music by Lennox and Michael Berkeley continues – an update on Michael’s contemporary voice and an invaluable opportunity to collect (and perhaps reassess) Lennox’s consummate output.
Lennox Berkeley’s Fourth Symphony might in some respects be getting its first performance with this recording. The actual first performance, in May 1978, was perhaps one of those events that comes and goes without due ceremony. This is said with absolutely no disrespect to Sir Charles Groves, anything but, who conducted the premiere in the Royal Festival Hall. Simply that I recall Radio 3’s live broadcast being a low-key affair, and that maybe the intrinsic values of Lennox Berkeley’s music were out of step with the times.
Has Symphony No.4 been played again until the sessions for this recording? If not, it is no reflection on the piece itself. A note of caution: this is music not for casual or impatient listening. Only after three complete auditions do I feel confident enough to write on this symphony’s outstanding qualities. And I still want to return to it – not to check things out anymore but to continue my delight of what can be counted one of Lennox’s finest pieces.
Cast in three movements, the 27-minute Fourth Symphony is both expansive and concise. Some gestures, with no charge of self-aggrandisement being applicable (of course!), are outreaching – a patrician technique serving what, maybe, the composer considered his ’last will and testament’ in terms of symphonic composing. There’s a flexing of strength – the symphony ends affirmatively – countered by wisdom and experience, and a revealing emotional candour.
From the initial bass clarinet statement, with flecks of harp and ’cool’ woodwind in tandem, one is taken into a very specific world knowing that the musical motifs all have a reason, a potential for growth. This ’slow introduction’, pregnant with anticipation, gives way to something more robust, the emphasis remaining lyric-based, a sense of striving, then affirmative arrival (a Lennox Berkeley ’purple patch’!) before the development journeys with purpose, and without distraction, to a sense of fulfilment.
The middle movement (the longest) is a theme and variations. Solo strings introduce a haunting refrain, one with potential, made manifest in the succeeding commentaries that alternate tempo and temperament indivisibly; a volatile slow movement with scherzo elements.
The Finale is pithy and concise, “a kind of rondo,” to quote the composer. The bracing opening contrasts with more mellifluous episodes, very effective and cumulatively satisfying. The more one listens to this symphony the more one discovers. It is rich indeed in melody, sensitivity, demonstration and veiled emotion, ambiguous maybe, and musically beyond reproach. Richard Hickox directs a dedicated performance that will prove as enduring as the symphony itself.
Of Michael Berkeley’s two, very different, works, The Garden of Earthy Delights calls for an outsize orchestra. Its 21 minutes are eventful – colourful, picturesque, suggestive and gory. The music literally gives birth to innocence and experience; it is music to tempt one’s imagination from the pointillist opening through luxuriance, ecstasy, fury and final decree. Extended perspectives focus on solo violin, saxophone and trombone, the three players required to undertake a little percussion work too. The whole is a cornucopia of vibrant expression motivated by Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych of paintings, “The Garden of Eden”, “Carnal Knowledge” and “Hell”.
The classical, light-toned 17 minutes of the Cello Concerto prove entirely pleasurable from jocular opening, through expansive cadenza, to Waltonian reminiscence and bittersweet Poulencian invention – an urbane and memorable tune – to introspective slow movement to a brief all-OK close. Maybe there’s too much reliance on cello soliloquies – albeit Alban Gerhardt’s eloquence threatens to make that observation redundant – and the return to light-heartedness is maybe too fleeting and too long in arriving. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy.

 

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