Lennox Berkeley
Serenade
Symphony No.1
Michael Berkeley
Concerto for horn and string orchestra
Coronach
David Pyatt (horn)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9981
Duration: 73 minutes
Reviewed: June 2002
With his centenary next year, this is an ideal time to focus on the output of Sir Lennox Berkeley who died in 1989. I wonder if Chandos will include his operas in its survey? It will certainly be good to have the four symphonies.
Berkeley’s First Symphony seems to begin with a ghost-reference to Beethoven before starlit timbres and harmonic piquancy announce a twentieth-century voice, one in the Stravinsky camp, and one recognisably British – with a soupçon of French elegance.
Lennox Berkeley’s is distinctive music, and this is a distinguished ’first symphony’, an important venture for any composer. Berkeley’s symphonic debut seems to have taken about five years to nurture, the 40-year-old composer conducting the première at the 1943 Proms, three years after completion. Rhythmic clarity and motivic concision define the symphony’s structure; persuasive and shapely melodies hallmark the expressive content. Tightly organised, the four economic movements follow the traditional pattern and are beautifully proportioned. The opening one is vital, the second balletic, while the slow movement is deeply felt and desolate – initially fragile before building to an agitated climax – such tensions being countered by the spirited and jocular finale, with a hint of Rossini to my mind! Berkeley’s transparent scoring demands precise playing and clear sound; both are supplied in this confident performance.
The exquisitely crafted Serenade (for strings) is a jewel of a piece written while Berkeley was working on the symphony. The outgoing opening movement has a memorable tune; its counterpart in the concluding ’Lento’ is tenderly beautiful. In between is a wistful ’Andantino’ and boisterous scherzo.
Whether it is such a good idea to couple these father and son composers, I’m not sure. Leaving aside filial associations, and the Cheltenham aspect of their careers, each has their own imprint and style. Listening to this CD straight through is instructive in one sense but distracting in another. Michael’s revised horn concerto (further revised for this first recording) is a study in anger, grief and sadness that seems to take its leave from Britten’s Serenade. The two contrasted movements, the variations within both, and the pointillist construction perhaps do not quite gel. David Pyatt’s playing is stunning and there’s certainly an emotional punch, as there is in Coronach’s impulsive ebb and flow, its Scottish connections overridden by a debt to Britten and, if not Shostakovich, Eastern Europe certainly.
This welcome and intriguing series is launched in fine style.

 

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