About this Recording
8.571369 - BERKELEY, L.: Piano Solo and Duet Music (Terroni, Beedie)
English 

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903–89)
Music for Solo Piano and Piano Duet

 

Piano was Sir Lennox Berkeley’s own instrument, for which he left a generous legacy of sensitively constructed works for soloists, chamber musicians and accompanists. Berkeley’s earlier works for keyboard were composed at school and later at Merton College, Oxford. He admired Chopin and Mozart from his earliest days, and heard the Beethoven sonatas on pianola rolls as a child. After college, Berkeley spent seven years (1927–34) in Paris, where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger. She disciplined his natural ear for melody and harmony through a rigorous study of counterpoint.

Amongst his first piano works of importance were the Five Short Pieces, Op. 4 (c. 1934). They are indeed short, none exceeding a few minutes in duration. Each contains a simple melodic idea, in some cases no more than an interval, and an essential rhythmic ingredient, sometimes with an additional contrasting idea. Most of the movements stray quickly from the key signature: rapid harmonic change and frequent modulations were always hallmarks of the Berkeley style. However the particular character of this set, with its lyricism and subtle harmonies, conjures up the atmosphere of piano works by Francis Poulenc, Berkeley’s lifelong friend. The first piece, marked Andante, begins with a whimsical melody in perpetual modulation that is interrupted by an insistent rhythmic section. The melody appears in other voices and the final bar confirms a key centre of D major. The second, an Allegro moderato, contains a simple singing tune under which a steady quaver pulse creates a texture suitable for contrapuntal development, weaving elements of the tune one on top of the other. The Moderato third movement is more thoughtful and lyrical, the melody set over a steady rhythmical pattern in the bass line. The melodic idea is characterised by the descending interval of the sixth and by constant modulation, finally ending with the theme repeated over the same rhythmic pulse. In the fourth piece, again an Andante, Berkeley picks up the pace with the melody beginning in the bass line and moving throughout the voices, spun around regular semiquavers and modulating as it goes. By comparison, the last of the set, an Allegro, is characterised by an interrupted rocking motif and sounds rhythmically halting, seeming to search for its own key signature without success until it closes on a fortissimo unison A in octaves.

Between 1934 and 1944 Berkeley established himself as one of the major British composers of his generation with a string of major works. A decisive factor in his development was the influence of a like-minded younger composer, Benjamin Britten. Berkeley had first encountered Britten at the 1936 ISCM Festival in Barcelona, and their subsequent friendship resulted in a rare example of musical collaboration, the orchestral suite Mont Juic. Berkeley wrote that meeting Britten helped him liberate certain elements of his style from an overwhelming French influence, allowing him freedom to speak in his own voice with musical integrity. Without losing his early charm he became more focused and could extend his ideas to write longer and more dramatic works, such as the Serenade for Strings, Op. 12 (1940), the First Symphony, Op. 16 (1940), Divertimento, Op. 18 (1943) and the Sonata, Op. 20 (1941–45) for piano.

The Sonata, Op. 20 (1941–45) is a large-scale work for piano in four contrasting movements. It was written for and premièred by Clifford Curzon at the Wigmore Hall in 1946. The structure of the work is loosely based on traditional classical models, but the development is organic rather than formal, departing from a strict traditional structure almost immediately. The Moderato first movement is loosely cast in sonata form, and the germ of the entire four-movement work is presented in the first bars. It is like a fanfare in A (E-C#-A-E) with a rising sixth which recurs elsewhere in this movement and in the piece. The second theme is more lyrical and dissonant. The themes are not repeated literally in the recapitulation sections, but are intimated by foreshortened elements of melody, rhythm and harmony, thus presenting the essence of a recapitulation but leaving more room for development. The Presto second movement begins with the rising sixth again and is characterised by rapid figuration. The Adagio, in E minor, is hauntingly beautiful with sensual harmonic shifts. The last movement, an Introduction and Allegro, is a rondo which is introduced by material reminiscent of the first movement, before developing into the rhythmic rondo theme. By contrast, more lyrical material comes between the three appearances of the rondo theme. The movement closes with the reiteration of the introductory bars, followed by the opening measures of the first movement (the recapitulation that did not happen in the first movement), bringing the work full circle.

The Six Preludes, Op. 23 (1945), written for Colin Horsley, are perhaps better known. Sir Lennox wrote, ‘My aim was to provide some piano music that would not be technically beyond the range of the competent amateur and yet be thoroughly pianistic. In the event, two of them turned out to be somewhat more difficult than I had intended, but none requires a virtuoso performer.’ Just as in the Five Short Pieces, there is a simple and distinctive melodic and rhythmic idea for each work, but in this context the ideas require and receive a more sustained treatment. The first Prelude begins with rapid figuration, out of which emerges a soaring melody in the treble which develops over the moto perpetuo. The second Prelude is slower, with a chordal ostinato bass underlying a whimsical melodic line. The third Prelude is a study in rapid figuration, and is the most purely ‘pianistic’ of the set. The fourth Prelude is a sort of Chopinesque Sarabande, whilst the fifth glitters like a brilliantly scored music box, Berkeley handling the 7/8 rhythm with finesse and wit. The last Prelude is actually a slow and meditative movement, lyrical and elegant.

Berkeley wrote works for two pianos and piano duet throughout his life. In fact, it was his popular Polka, Op. 5, No. 1 (1934) for two pianos, written for and toured by the piano duo Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, which first introduced his music to wider audiences round Europe and the United States. In addition it was a Berkeley dinner party convention to perform piano duets after supper, and his Maida Vale house was well-stocked with classical repertoire for this combination. His own works for piano duet range in style from the rather serious Sonatina to the light-hearted Palm Court Waltz. Berkeley was a master of intricate writing for duet performers, and in his ability to create a lucid texture despite the greater number of moving parts.

Berkeley wrote the Sonatina, Op. 39 (1954) after he had finished his first two operas, A Dinner Engagement and Nelson. It was first performed by Liza Fuchsova and Paul Hamburger at the Wigmore Hall on 18 January 1955. The first movement begins in commanding style, with the interval of the fourth as the main thematic ingredient. The second movement is a typically lyrical Berkeley Andante, very good-natured and elegant. The last movement, an Allegro, features rapid figuration in fourths. The contrasting movements and strong thematic coherence create a satisfying and well-rounded work.

The Theme and Variations, Op. 73 (1968) for piano duet was written for Gerald Stofsky and Annie Ault, and recorded for the first time by Raphael Terroni and Norman Beedie on this disc. Theme and variations was a favourite Berkeley vehicle for ideas throughout his career. In this instance, the theme is presented as a rising arpeggio in A major, with a distinctive double-dotted rhythmic feature following on. In all, there are seven variations, with the first four alternating between allegro and lento. The fifth, an Andante, acts as a bridge to the extended sixth variation, in an A-B-A form. The seventh and final variation is a coda, reiterating the original theme to close.

The final piano duet on this recording is the Palm Court Waltz, Op. 81, No. 2 (1971), originally an orchestral work for performance at the Coliseum, commissioned and dedicated to a dinner party duet partner and friend, Burnet Pavitt. The work begins with a humourously overblown fanfare. The waltz begins just after the fanfare, and both partners have their turn with the tune. At certain moments it sounds as though the players have lost their way, stopping or pausing and starting again, but in fact never losing the beat or the momentum. With typical modesty Sir Lennox said, ‘The Waltz is not exactly a parody, though rhythms and melodies very close to the Viennese model will be recognised. I have tried to incorporate these into my own musical idiom, rather in the manner of Ravel, but not, I feel, nearly so well!’

Lennox Berkeley wrote primarily for the ear. His approach to composition is organic, based on a contrapuntal development of ideas which relies on subtle hints of theme and radical modulations, often leaving the listener wondering where the work is going until the end. This feeling of imbalance is deliberate and creates drama and tension, released at the last by an orientating repetition of the initial theme and harmony. Just as with one of Berkeley’s most admired composers, Fauré, repeated listenings made possible by welcome recordings such as this give ever deeper insights into this sensitively constructed music.

Joan Redding (1993)

I have always especially loved my father’s piano music, because his approach is so pianistic and shows a deep love and understanding of the instrument. It also invariably mirrors his character in its charm and wit, and in its bittersweet nostalgia. One of my abiding images of my father is of him working his way through the Chopin piano music; this is reflected in the technical demands that he himself mischievously engineers. Another passion was Mozart, as I think one might deduce from the phrasing and melodic construction; while, harmonically, the influence of France—Debussy, Ravel and in particular Poulenc—has been absorbed into a highly individual personal language. For me, my father’s piano literature represents in microcosm his compositional talents at their very best.

Michael Berkeley (1993)


Close the window