Songs of Lennox Berkeley – James Gilchrist

0 of 5 stars

Lennox Berkeley
D’un vanneur de blé aux vents
How love came in
Five Songs, Op.14 – No.2: Bells of Cordoba
Five Poems of W. H. Auden, Op.53
Five Herrick Poems, Op.89
Autumn’s Legacy, Op.58
Automne, Op.60/3
Ode du premier jour de Mai
Sonnet, Op.102
Five Chinese Songs, Op.78

James Gilchrist (tenor) & Anna Tilbrook (piano) with Alison Nicholls (harp)

Recorded 4-6 June 2008 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: June 2009
Duration: 69 minutes



Les Six and Erik Satie) to one of his final works, the incredibly touching “Sonnet” written in the early 1980s when the composer was suffering from the on-set of Alzheimer’s. This little song harks back to Berkeley’s earliest style, apart from the anguished outburst at the words “And when I am almost completely broken and lie wearily down on my bed, I must cry out my pain the whole night long” – perhaps it isn’t too fanciful to suggest that this is a message from a composer who all too soon would be able to compose no more.

In between come engaging gems – the cabaret-like “Ode du premier jour de Mai”, the reflective “Automne” (written in memory of Berkeley’s great friend Francis Poulenc) and some magical stand-alone settings such as “How love came in” (Lady Berkeley’s favourite) and “The Bells of Cordoba” (from Lorca) whose tinkling accompaniment betrays a more serious message.

Contrary to depressingly accepted belief, Berkeley is not just a miniaturist – the settings of W. H. Auden are some of the best of their kind and form a satisfying, unified whole. Berkeley captures both the whimsical and nostalgic side of Auden’s verse without ever resorting to mannerism and kitsch, the cycle as a whole is equal to anything by Britten, of whom Berkeley was in awe. The same could be said of “Autumn’s Legacy”, a major statement, Berkeley’s most ambitious song-cycle written for Richard Lewis and Geoffrey Parsons and here unbelievably receiving its first recording. The final songs on the disc are both miniatures and not, settings of brief Chinese poems matched by aphoristic, tonally ambiguous epigrams, a fine example of Berkeley’s late style.

It’s hard to imagine this music getting a more committed and loving performance than it does here. James Gilchrist shows once again what an exemplary artist he is – every word whether in English or French is crystal-clear, phrasing is elegant but never prissy and overdone and he makes the listener believe in every note he sings. The present writer knows from sometimes bitter experience the difficulties behind Berkeley’s idiomatic but sometimes finger-twisting piano parts (the second song of “Autumn’s Legacy”, for example) but these hold no fears for Anna Tilbrook who is alert to their many and varied demands. Alison Nicholls makes a noteworthy contribution in the Herrick settings.

The excellent booklet has a fascinating commentary on the songs by Peter Dickinson, an eloquent essay from Tony Scotland and copious, illuminating photographs of Lennox Berkeley showing him as a 1920s’ dandy, the elegant aristocrat of the 1940s and the devoted family man of the 1960s. The songs’ texts are also included. A wonderful release in every way.

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