Berkeley – Father & Son

Lennox Berkeley
Gloria (Mass for five voices, Op.64)
There was no grass nor corn
Impromptu for organ
Aria (Three Pieces for Organ, Op.72/1)
The Hill of the Graces, Op.91/2
Look up, sweet babe, Op.43/2
In wintertime, Op.103
A Festival Anthem, Op.21/2
Michael Berkeley
Wild Bells
Motet: Qui me dignatus est

BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury
Iain Farrington (organ)

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 20 September, 2002
Venue: St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London

An early and hopefully the first of many concerts to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir Lennox Berkeley, one of our most distinguished and underrated composers. Since his death in 1989 his music seems to have fallen more and more out of favour, despite his extensive contribution to most musical genres – song, piano and chamber music, opera, choral and orchestral works. However, the centenary seems to be prompting along overdue reassessment in both the recording studio and concert hall.

Michael Berkeley opened the concert with a short introduction explaining that with the possible exception of writing for the piano, the human voice was the instrument closest to his father’s heart. This can be seen not only in the large number of songs with piano but in the considerable number of choral works of all kinds, of which this concert gave a fine cross section – from the relatively early Festival Anthem of 1945 to his last completed work, the tiny carol, In wintertime, written for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College in 1983.

The programme was hugely satisfying from the point of view of range of Berkeley senior’s (from now on referred to as LB) art.The opening Gloria from the Mass for five voices comes from the mid-1960s and shows LB’s more advanced idiom – the tonality is less secure, the vocal lines perhaps less immediately memorable and the counterpoint sinewy and elaborate. In short not perhaps the sort of piece that one might expect from a composer who is normally dismissed with words such as miniaturist and elegance! This is the music of a very considerable craftsman, close to the world of Frank Martin who also adapted elements of twelve-tone technique to his own requirements. LB used to refer to the rigorous training he received from Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s, including two years of nothing but Bach chorales and Palestrina counterpoint – forty years later the effect of this training is still much in evidence. Certainly one of the best works of LB’s middle years and deserving much wider exposure.

The Hill of the Graces is late work (1975) written originally for the BBC Singers who sang this revival with great skill and feeling. The work set lines from Spencer’s “The Fairie Queene” and is an example of LB at his most spare and uncompromising (though the final cadence couldn’t be by an other composer) obviously taking advantage of the BBC Singers’ faultless sense of pitch. For this writer at least the level of inspiration somewhat dwindles towards the end, but worth reviving.

Three of the works demonstrated better known side of LB’s output – short Carols, not taxing the choir too much and responding to straight forward texts in the most direct and meaningful way; not a note wasted, bitter-sweet harmonies and beautifully thought out choral textures. Look up, sweet babe is a minor classic, the beguiling soprano solo sung by Margaret Feaviour.

Michael Berkeley is not a composer one would readily associate with choral music; similarly one might not think of LB as a composer of organ music. MB’s beautiful motet, Qui me dignatus est, showed a shrewd understanding of choral music and his more extended anthem, Easter, showed itself to be a very powerful setting of George Herbert’s well know poem “Rise heart: thy Lord is risen…” set so memorably by Vaughan Williams in his Mystical Songs. There was a very definite ’Lennox moment’ in the central section – flowing soprano solo (Elizabeth Poole) over a rocking accompaniment in the organ. The organ – a very fine instrument – was played by Iain Farrington, who gave a blistering performance of MB’s Messiaenic piece, Wild Bells, and LB’s remarkably effective Impromptu and ’Aria’.

The final work, A Festival Anthem, was in many ways thefinest of all – a LB classic that belongs alongside his Divertimento, Serenade and the St Teresa Poems as demonstrating the very best of British music from the 1940s. Uplifting, touching and wonderfully written for voices and organ – with a “big Berkeley tune” in the middle. Quite why this isn’t part of choirs’ repertoire I cannot imagine – hopefully the centenary will change this.

Stephen Cleobury spoke movingly of his association with LB – he clearly loves the music and responds to LB’s very personal message. Indeed the BBC Singers seemed to feel the same way and gave superb performances.

A fine concert. The broadcast isn’t until May 11th next year (the eve of LB’s birthday) – a long time to wait but worth marking in the diary.

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