Lyrita – Lennox Berkeley & Arthur Benjamin Piano Music

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Lennox Berkeley
Piano Sonata in A, Op.20
Six Preludes, Op.23
Scherzo in D, Op.32/2
Impromptu in G minor, Op.7/1
Concert Study in E flat, Op.48/2
Four Concert Studies, Op.14 [numbers 2-4]
Arthur Benjamin
Pastorale, Arioso and Finale
Scherzino
Etudes Improvisées
Siciliana

Colin Horsley (piano) [Berkeley]

Lamar Crowson (piano)

Recorded December 1958 [Berkeley] & February 1960 in The Music Room, Burnham, Buckinghamshire


Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: September 2008
CD No: LYRITA REAM.2109
(2 CDs)
Duration: 85 minutes

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris from 1927. During this period he became acquainted with Poulenc, Roussel, Milhaud and Honegger, and there is certainly a Gallic flavour to some of the fine music on the first disc in this set.

Written during the second half of the Second World War for Clifford Curzon, the Piano Sonata opens with a substantial first movement. After a serious opening theme, the movement proceeds with pent-up energy, until a more peaceful second subject takes over. Plenty of clashing harmonies colour the music, though it remains tonal throughout; Berkeley’s essays in serialism were to come later in his career.

The second movement in the style of a perpetuum mobile calls for mounds of technique, which Colin Horsley has to bring off this movement with great success. The Adagio has a mournful melody also repeated at the close, played here with affection, and a central section lighter and more optimistic in nature. The finale opens with an introduction harking back to the opening movement. The Sonata, played often in concert by Horsley, has remarkable architecture and a wealth of ideas.

The Six Preludes were written around the same time and were, as Berkeley puts it, written “to express himself as concisely as possible”. Horsley rises to the occasion with aplomb; again the colours in the music are brought out vividly. The Scherzo from 1949 was dedicated to Horsley, and is a two-minute tour de force whose passagework needs the clarity it gets here from its dedicatee. An early Impromptu follows and enchants with its melody.

Horsley’s recital ends with four studies, the first of which Berkeley wrote for him in 1956, a piece testing of technique in the work’s opening and closing and with a more reflective middle section. The remaining studies (numbers 2 to 4 of the Opus 14 set) are from the early days of the War; the last requires a meringue-light touch.

Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) was born in Australia, studied in London, worked as a conductor in Canada and taught in London and Sydney. He studied under Stanford and Cliffe, and his pupils included Britten and Lamar Crowson, who performed and recorded his teacher’s music with obvious affection. The two came together for an Everest recording with the London SYmphony Orchestra of Benjamin’s Piano Concerto, a recording well worth resurrecting.

Crowson was a first-rate pianist who recorded some highly regarded LPs of chamber works with the Melos Ensemble; American-born, he studied in London and ended his career at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, a much-loved teacher and recitalist. From the evidence of this recording, he took to Benjamin’s charming and witty music, bringing out the contrasting moods with great success. The Pastorale, Arioso and Finale (1943) opens with the delicate, moves on to the mournful yet passionate song of the Arioso and ends with a toccata of virtuoso construction.

Etudes Improvisées bring a rich vein of inspiration, the moods very well captured by Crowson; the last of these was written by Benjamin to show off Crowson’s brilliance. The recital also includes two charming works from 1936, a delicate Scherzino, gossamer-like in its texture and a Siciliana reminding that Benjamin was a composer of finely-crafted light music, too.

The mono recordings have been excellently remastered by Simon Gibson, and though not in the first flush of youth, wear their fifty years quite lightly. Intimately recorded, the discs communicate the pianists’ work with success. Although the playing-time looks short, the discs are issued at bargain price and should be snapped-up by all lovers of British piano music.

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