Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op.30
Concerto for Orchestra ‘Seascapes’
Kathryn Stott & Howard Shelley (pianos)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded on 6 & 7 January 2006 in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10408
Duration: 70 minutes
In what appears to be the last of Chandos’s series devoted to the music of Lennox and Michael Berkeley (father and son), it’s good to finally have a recording of the latter’s Gregorian Variations. The work made a big impression at its first performance, in April 1982, played in the Royal Festival Hall, London, by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by André Previn. Less a set of variations and more a fantasia based on plainchant (one slinky idea assigned to cor anglais is particularly rich in possibilities), the 17-minute Gregorian Variations is a wide-ranging but integrated work that covers a diverse range of styles (jazz, pop, filmic, ‘English’, ‘American’, ‘Arabian’) that utilises a large orchestra (including ceremonial bells and insinuating saxophone) with imagination and swagger; one might hear references (consciously or otherwise) to Michael Tippett and to Leonard Bernstein and find a picturesque landscape opening up. Whatever the reaction, Gregorian Variations is an accessible and stylish piece that is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense, with a dry sense of humour lurking under the surface – are the brass chords towards the end an affectionate nod to William Walton? – and with plenty for the active listener to relish and return to.
Michael Berkeley’s Concerto for Orchestra – first heard at the 2005 BBC Proms when I do not recall the ‘Seascapes’ sub-title being prevalent – has more sinew to it. It seems more a three-movement symphony, although the writing is no doubt challenging to the musicians. The propulsive and intense first movement – anguish and conflict to the fore but with lucid development – are softened, if not emotionally, by the middle movement, headed ‘Threnody for a Sad Trumpet. In Memoriam J.A.’, a commemoration to those that perished in the 2004 Christmas-time tsunami. (J.A. is Jane Attenborough, daughter of Sir Richard, and a friend of the composer’s.) Eerie and fragile, almost static, it is the solo trumpeter, Philippe Schartz is the sensitive player here, who carries expressive, ‘blues’-sounding emotions. The finale returns to the energy and striving of the first movement, once more a fast-slow-fast design; the ‘slow’ section is compelling on its own terms and the arrival of an organ is an arresting moment.
Lennox Berkeley’s Concerto for Two Pianos was first heard in 1948 and was written for Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith before the latter lost the use of his left arm (through a stroke) and composers rallied to write or arrange three-handed pieces for them. Typical of Lennox Berkeley’s style is his consummate craftsmanship, a mix of Mozartean clarity, Poulenc-like wit, a lean but generous sense of melody and a sparkling lightness of touch. The concerto’s two-movement shape – the second is an extended ‘Theme and Variations’ – is here given an affectionate and engaging rendition, one not afraid to seek out the shadows beneath the smiles (but this is generally ‘happy’ music, maybe reflecting end-of war relaxation), which, like the other works here, is splendidly recorded and annotated.