Sir Lennox Berkeley 100th Anniversary Concert

Lennox Berkeley
Sonatina for flute and piano, Op.13
Trio for violin, horn and piano, Op.44
Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet, Op.47
Two Songs from Five Poems of W. H. Auden, Op.53
Two Songs from Op.14
Palm Court Waltz
Michael Berkeley
Gethsemane, for tenor, piano and string quartet [World premiere] *
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé *
Three Songs from La courte paille

Joan Rogers (soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
The Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend *

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 May, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Even allowing for a falling off of reputation in the years immediately before and since his death, the number of events marking the centenary year of Sir Lennox Berkeley are relatively few. Which makes this concert by the Nash Ensemble the more welcome, even if the balance and content of the programme were not quite what they could have been.

It almost seems inevitable that a concert of music by Berkeley the father will also include music by the son. Fine if the music is intrinsically worthwhile, but Michael Berkeley’s Gethsemane was a disappointment. The idea of a scena setting the biblical text concerning Christ’s ’moment of truth’ is a potentially fruitful one. Yet this piece, with its turgid harmonic follow-through, foursquare rhythmic profile, and alternately awkward and fussy vocal writing hardly began to do it justice. Toby Spence did what he could to project a lyrical and expressive line, and the Nash players worked hard to maintain textural clarity, but this hardly seems a piece destined to outlast the occasion.

As to the five works by Lennox Berkeley, these all date from a 28-year period – three of them from the 1950s alone – which, while indicative of the composer at or near his best, allowed only a partial overview of his strengths. In particular, the 1960s and ’70s, when Berkeley’s music takes on more angular and elusive qualities, were unrepresented. That said, no one able to discern the compatibility of ’art’ with ’craft’ in composition would have been disappointed with the works on offer.

And there are few better ways into Berkeley’s chamber music than the Sonatina (1939) – originally for recorder, but sounding wholly idiomatic in its flute incarnation. The elegance of the opening ’Moderato’ and capriciousness of the Finale frame a limpid ’Adagio’ of wistful tenderness, the latter drawing the best interpretatively from Philippa Davies. The Trio for violin, horn and piano (1952) is beautifully realised for a difficult medium. The tautly argued ’Allegro’ and deceptively restrained ’Lento’ are superb instances of revitalised Classical (i.e. sonata and ternary) forms, and if the Theme and Variations finale felt at all prolix in comparison, the pliability of the theme itself and the unity-in- diversity of the 10 variations – combining solo display with ensemble integration in equal measure – ensured a cumulative focus to the work as a whole.

Sandwiched between these pieces, Ravel’s Mallarmé settings – expressively sung by Joan Rodgers and discreetly conducted by Lionel Friend – were a reminder of the gallic sensibility of Lennox Berkeley’s music: an influence as much ancestral as aesthetic, perhaps, but always absorbed into the substance of his music, rather than attached as a stylistic conceit. This was confirmed with the Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet (1955) – nominally in the lineage of Ibert and Poulenc but with a strongly motivated rhythmic momentum in the outer movements and a subtle delicacy in the ’Lento’ that is authentic Berkeley.

A selection of songs reminded one of Berkeley’s prowess in word-setting. Admittedly, even his lightness of emphasis could not prevent the two Auden texts (1958) from sounding self-conscious and contrived, but – after an appropriate interlude of Poulenc (including three of the delectable courte paille songs) – the two settings of sixteenth-century French poets (1940) were of a depth and insight to rival anything by Britten from the period.

Toby Spence and Joan Rogers did them proud, then Ian Brown (the Nash’s redoubtable pianist) and Simon Crawford-Phillips rounded off the evening with the witty strains of Lennox’s Palm Court Waltz. Performance-wise, the evening was little short of a triumph, and anyone present that was previously unacquainted with Lennox Berkeley’s distinctive idiom will hopefully have been persuaded to investigate further.

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