31 May 2009

Songs of Lennox Berkeley

Originally published on muciscalcriticism.com
31 may 2009

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903 – 1989) is one of those composers whose life spans much of the twentieth century and many singers will know him through his much-loved choral pieces; the beautiful setting of The Lord is my Shepherd or maybe his Missa Brevis or even the Mass for 5 voices. But how many of us have had the opportunity of hearing a programme of his songs such as this new album by the English tenor, James Gilchrist?

Presenting these songs in a chronological order (with an exception for the central position of the cycle Five Herrick Poems, Op. 89) allows the listener a delicious opportunity to reflect on the long career of Sir Lennox and the astonishing artists with whom he mixed throughout his life. Berkeley was partly of French descent so his assured setting of French poetry from his undergraduate days at Merton College in 'D'un vanneur de blé aux vents' should not come as a great surprise despite his relative youth. It certainly impressed Maurice Ravel and on his advice Berkeley went to study with Boulanger in Paris in 1926, and his cycle Tombeaux of poetry by John Cocteau was written during his first year there. In Paris he met many leading artists through Cocteau, including the composers of 'Les Six' whose influence can be heard in the bitonality of this minature cycle.

'How love came in', the first English song in this programme, dates from 1933 when Berkeley was back in London and is a charming setting of a poem by Robert Herrick. It is followed by 'Bells of Cordoba', a setting of Lorca in English translation, and then the 1958 cycle Five poems of W.H.Auden, which are more exploratory in their compositional technique but so beautifully written that one can only feel renewed sadness at the loss of his undergraduate settings of Auden. The Five Herrick Poems written for Peter Pears and Osian Ellis come next and are one of the more surprising premiere recordings – surprising that they have not been recorded before. Then Berkeley's larger cycle Autumn's Legacy once again shows a shift in his harmonic language, probably influenced by his experiments with 12 tone rows. These songs are thick with the darkening atmospheres of autumn and contain some of his most ingenious and descriptive piano writing.

Three songs, 'Automne', 'Ode du premier jour de Mai' and 'Sonnet' precede the final cycle Five Chinese Songs written for Meriel and Peter Dickinson (Peter Dickinson provides some of the excellent sleeve notes). This cycle has a newly sparse feeling that Berkeley claimed in a 1974 BBC interview had been influenced by the Chinese language, less busy and wonderfully devoid of any firm tonality.

Gilchrist gives consistently wonderful performances of these works, with his clear voice and intelligent interpretations he is quite masterful at the English songs, in particular, and is well matched to his accompanist Anna Tilbrook, who responds admirably to Berkeley's keen grasp of counterpoint (presumably learnt under Boulanger) which underpins much of his keyboard writing. Alison Nicholls' deft harp-technique delivers a welcome change of texture at the mid-point of this recording and she makes light work of what is very difficult music indeed. In some ways I would have enjoyed more obvious changes of atmosphere between the French and English works, in particular, but such is the potency of Berkeley's textures that on repeated listening this ceases to matter.

As ever with Chandos, the album is beautifully presented and recorded with their characteristic clarity and depth of field, all of which really captures the enjoyment of these artists in their performances. It is wonderful to have such a collection of Berkeley's songs and this album is sure to inspire many listeners to discover more of his music.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano; Alison Nicholls, harp (Chandos CHAN 10528)

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