Classical CD Reviews

LENNOX BERKELEY: Trio; String Trio; Sonatina; Oboe Quartet; Suite – Tagore Strings/ Sarah Francis, oboe and Cor Anglais / Judith Fitton, flute and pic./ Michael Dussek, p. – Regis

There are a number of reasons to be thankful for this recording of Berkeley’s chamber music.

Published on March 28, 2012

LENNOX BERKELEY: Trio; String Trio; Sonatina; Oboe Quartet; Suite – Tagore Strings/ Sarah Francis, oboe and Cor Anglais / Judith Fitton, flute and pic./ Michael Dussek, p. – Regis

LENNOX BERKELEY: Trio for flute/piccolo, oboe/ cor anglais, and piano; String Trio, Op. 19; Sonatina for oboe and piano, Op. 61; Oboe Quartet, Op. 70; Suite for flute, oboe, and string trio – Tagore Strings/ Sarah Francis, oboe and cor anglais/ Judith Fitton, flute and piccolo/ Michael Dussek, piano – Regis RRC1380, 66:22 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:

As is immediately apparent from the chamber music on this disc, British composer Lenox Berkeley studied in France with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger, and came under the influence of French composers including Ravel and Poulenc and that most famous of composers living in France during the 20s—Igor Stravinsky. The earliest works on this CD have the easy elegant manner of French (and that includes Stravinskian) neoclassicism: a piquant touch of dissonance (which was to become more and more pronounced in Berkeley’s later works until it edged over into serialism) and, in the case of the Trio for woodwinds and piano (1935), a breezy pop-musical swing in the slow movement that smacks of the cabaret. Add that to the interesting timbral contrasts provided by the flutist switching to piccolo and oboist to English horn, and you have an interestingly varied little work.  Oddly, the fugal last movement sounds more like early Hindemith than like one of Les Six, so I guess Berkeley kept his ears and mind open to other contemporary musical trends on the Continent.

The recording of this work and of the 1930 Suite are said to be world-premiers, one among several reasons to be thankful for this release. Other reasons include the fact that the selections cover a good bit of Berkeley’s career, except for his last, more avant-garde period, so we get a very good idea of the development of his style, through the acerbic String Trio of 1943 to the evermore chromatic and hard-edged Sonatina and Quartet of the 1960s, though the tart, almost flippant finale of the Sonatina may be the exception that proves the rule. If Berkeley left behind the easy charm of the boulevardier for a somewhat unsmiling modernism in his later works, the world, after all, had changed as much as the composer’s style in the thirty-odd years between the writing of the jolly back-to-Bach Suite and the Oboe Quartet. To confound matters even further, however, there is enough of the radical spirit in the Adagio movement of Berkeley’s Suite to indicate his later defection to the modernist Dark Side—more power to him!

I find the playing here above criticism, at least negative criticism: it’s witty when that’s called for, sober when that’s in order, eloquent and poised throughout. That pretty much characterizes the sonics as well, which are eminently clean and clear, natural as an untrammeled rain forest. The recording venue must have something to do with that; too bad it isn’t credited anywhere in the notes or CD back cover. Except for that omission, I couldn’t be happier about this disc and the discoveries it offers.

—Lee Passarella




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