A Composer’s Choice – Michael Berkeley (24 May)

Michael Berkeley
Entertaining Mr Punch
For Mrs Tomoyasu [arranged for Endymion: world premiere]
For the Savage Messiah
Sphinx [world premiere]
Chansons madécasses

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)

Endymion Ensemble

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 24 May, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London

The Endymion Ensemble aims “to enhance and nurture this country’s musical heritage in new and imaginative ways”. Its innovative “Composer Choice” concerts began in the 1980s. The concert was also very much a family occasion. I’ve never seen so many members of an audience greeting each other warmly.

Ravel refers to his Chansons madécasses as “a sort of quartet in which the voice plays the part of the principal instrument”. Helen Keen (flute) and Jane Salmon (cello) eloquently produced the vigorously delicate sounds one associates with Ravel. Michael Dussek (piano) added the darker, more angular tone of the later Ravel – especially in the turbulent, aggrieved second song, Méfiez-vous des Blancs? Gweneth-Ann Jeffers sang with the resonance of a mezzo. Her singing was rich, warm, beguiling and seductive – with some quavering.

In the conversation that ensued between Michael Berkeley and Simon Holt, the two men discussed the impact of silence in music. Regarding sound, they agreed that ’less is more’.

These remarks were particularly pertinent to Simon Holt’s Sphinx. It is scored for cor anglais (Melinda Maxwell) and nine tuned gongs (Richard Benjafield). The work lasts some 14 minutes and took a year to write. I found it riveting. The cor anglais begins proceedings – loud, low, dark and imperious. Thereafter, it interjected abrasively from time to time, but finished softly on a high A flat. The main text came from the gongs. Pithy bell-like sequences – as if from a far-off Himalayan temple – made their occasional serene appearance. Then silences held – broken once or twice in the scurry of a puff of wind. Some silences were serene; others were nail-biting.

Janácek’s Concertino did not come off. It sounded under-loved. Michael Dussek, on whom much depended, played a pedestrian role, so that Janácek’s daring repetitions in the first movement became, frankly, boring. The second movement was redeemed by Mark van de Wiel’s passionate, controlled clarinet – exemplary Janácek playing. Overall, I met angularity without passion.

Of the Michael Berkeley pieces, For the Savage Messiah is the earliest (1985). I found it muddy – neither savage, nor messianic. Passion was missing in the writing – though there was commitment a-plenty in the playing. The vocal line of For Mrs Tomoyasu is even earlier (1982), but the re-arrangement is from 2003. The vocal line – sung with dignified, controlled emotion – had awkward, unmelodic angularities. It sounded unengaging and dated. The instrumental writing, on the other hand, was pointed, precise and telling – rising to the occasion assuredly for the two climaxes. (Meanwhile, intensity of the vocal line hardly changed.)

The last piece, Entertaining Mr Punch (1991), was much more interesting. The sounds were more sparing and more telling. I began to hear a distinct musical voice. Instruments displayed their identity epigramatically and, at the same time, began calling out to each other. A dialogue was taking place. They even agreed to co-operate in producing a sonic onslaught once or twice. Here, definitely and precisely, less was more.

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