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Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Piano Concerto in B flat Op.29 (1947) [26:13]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra Op.30* (1948) [32:17]
David Wilde (piano)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
* Garth Beckett, Boyd McDonald (pianos)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
rec. 1975 (op. 29); 1978 (op.30). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.250 [58.33]

In the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s when Lyrita put out the very best LP pressings on the market, the UK’s leading composers like Berkeley, Walton and Alwyn were persuaded to step into the studios and record their own work or, as in this case, be present for the recording. Some of these recordings lay dormant for several years after the death of the LP but have now emerged triumphant.

The original LP coupling for the B flat Concerto was the 2nd Symphony with some quite analytical notes by Berkeley himself. These are, in part at least, quoted by Peter Dickinson in his excellent updated booklet notes. What we now have is a much more sensible coupling although one might be disappointed that the disc falls below the ‘statutory’ one hour’s duration .The Second Symphony is now, incidentally, coupled with the First on SRCD.249 and both discs use the original LP cover designs.

Both of these works were commissioned and first performed in the Henry Wood promenade concerts in consecutive years: 1947 and 1948; not 1958 as the booklet mistakenly has it. Peter Dickinson makes it quite clear that he regards the B flat Concerto as a masterpiece. It falls into three movements, a sunny opening, marked Allegro moderato, a melancholy and pastoral middle Andante and an exuberant finale. It’s all very approachable but also well worth replaying to find new theme developments and fascinating turns of orchestration. Peter Dickinson reminds us of John Manduel’s extraordinary words at Berkeley’s funeral when he said: "No composer has written more distinctively for the piano." That’s quite right and accounts for the confident passages of virtuosity in this work’s finale which David Wilde surmounts with ease.

I know that these concertos have been newly recorded in recent times on Chandos, but I have not heard them. Anyway there is a sense of authority and definitiveness about these Lyrita recordings which means that if you love Berkeley’s music you will want both versions. The Concerto for Two Pianos has been coupled on Chandos with Michael Berkeley’s Concerto for Orchestra (CHAN 10468) and the B flat Concerto with the Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila (CHAN 10265); all suitably mouth-watering.

This double concerto is of a demanding half-an-hour’s duration. One should not underestimate the skill and genius there is in writing a double concerto, especially when both instruments are the same. Berkeley was at the time in his fullest maturity as a composer and was revelling in it.

This work falls, most curiously, into two movements beginning with an eight minute opening Allegro consisting of a grand, declamatory introduction. There’s then a twenty-four minute Theme and eleven variations. The booklet notes adumbrate the variations usefully and clearly. The grand idea which opened the first movement returns at the end. Why did he adopt this structure? Peter Dickinson says nothing, but no Romantic composer would have opted for this structure. Mozart, however, Berkeley’s ideal, often used to end a work with a set of variations. Not only is Berkeley anti-romantic in form but he also eschews the whole Romantic concept of conflict in the concerto, one against the many, which is even harder with two soloists. I surmise that these variations are an antidote to conflict. They follow rapidly, creating a fast, slow, fast, slow, fast format, where development of material and melody is the overriding consideration. Despite all of that, and I have known the work for over twenty years, I still find it not completely satisfactory. The Variations can give the structure a disjointed effect and although there are some memorable melodies the work spreads itself too widely for my taste.

The recording however is superb. The performance seems to me to bring out the best of the music, but as I have said I have not heard the Chandos recordings.

So, although these pieces may not be for those of you unfamiliar as yet with Lennox Berkeley, for those of you looking to add these pieces to your library then do search this disc out.

Gary Higginson

See also review by Rob Barnett



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