This year marks the centenary of one of Britain’s less-recognised classical composers Sir Lennox Berkeley, who has unfairly remained in the shadow of more established figures such as Britten and Walton. Credit should go to Chandos then, for this edition, which not only gives the senior composer some welcome exposure but gives us a chance to compare and contrast the music of his son Michael, a familiar broadcasting figure but a fully fledged composer in his own right.
To begin, Richard Hickox conducts the first recording of Lennox’s Fourth Symphony, written when he was a mere 75 years old. The atmospheric bass clarinet sets the scene, with an organic first movement giving way to a contrasting set of variations, where Berkeley employs a favourite technique of contrasting fast scherzo music with slow, more thoughtful passages. The finale is more lyrical, and although the whole piece will probably pass you by on first listen, repeated hearings are more rewarding since Berkeley never employs the technique of repetition.
On the evidence here, his son’s music is more direct, angular and a little ragged around the edges. This is just what you want in a piece like The Garden Of Earthly Delights, based as it is on Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych taking in The Garden Of Eden, Carnal Knowledge and the Retribution Of Hell. Heady stuff then, and best listened to on a big hi-fi as the scope of Berkeley’s sound picture is most impressive. With violin, saxophone and trombone placed away from the orchestra and a ‘lion’s roar’, an effect achieved by friction on a cord within a resonant drum, prepare for some weird and wonderful colouring. From the fluttering violin line in Carnal Knowledge to the bombastic close, this is theatrical music well worth getting to know. The Cello Concerto is more concise and ‘classical’, echoing Walton and Elgar but with its own distinctive main theme. Alban Gerhardt launches himself into the cello’s arrival with abandon, but plays the more elegiac sections with commendable restraint.
This is volume three of an invaluable series, and whilst perhaps not the best place to investigate Lennox Berkeley’s music – Volume 1 would be that – it’s the issue in which Michael comes into his own.