Michael Berkeley’s Whimsical & Moving “Winter Fragments”

Berkeley

BERKELEY: Catch Me if You Can. Clarinet Quintet. Winter Fragments.* Sonnet for Orpheus.* Seven / *Fleur Barron, mezzo; Berkeley Ensemble; Dominic Grier, cond / Resonus Classics 10223

Following on from their lauded recording of chamber works by their namesake, Lennox Berkeley, the Berkeley Ensemble – celebrating their 10th anniversary – return to Resonus Classics to turn their attention to the music of his son, Michael.

This is unusual simply because, except for the Bach family, generational composers are rare. Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried wrote operas, too, but none of them have survived because the music was mediocre and derivative of other composers (including his father). Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Britten had no children (but Mozart’s father, not as good as he, was a composer). Debussy had a daughter, Claude-Emma, who unfortunately died when a doctor gave her the wrong treatment for diphtheria. (Remember my motto: stay away from doctors!) Just about the only one I can think of besides the Berkeleys were the Holsts, but Gustav’s daughter Imogen, a fine conductor, was a minor composer.

The Berkeleys appear to have been more fortunate. Father Lennox was never quite considered a “Top Ten” British composer, but his music was original, interesting and extremely well-crafted (much like the sadly underrated Leonard Salzedo), and son Michael seems to me to be on the same good level. His tripartite piece Catch Me if You Can has the same kind of modern but whimsical profile as his father’s Horn Trio, the one Lennox Berkeley piece that has become an established favorite among chamber musicians even today, yet he does NOT try to copy his father. He definitely has his own voice, and like his father he has a clear understanding of musical structure—something that too many modern composers choose to ignore.

The Clarinet Quintet, a 14-minute work in one continuous movement, starts slowly but then morphs into yet another whimsical theme in a faster tempo, using syncopation in a unique manner. The clarinet plays swirling passages around the equally busy strings, who play rhythmic figures. Then the tempo slows down a bit, but the music retains its bitonal edge in the development section. A very fine work indeed!

The six-part Winter Fragments, featuring mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, uses the voice like an instrument, even more so than the music of Britten or Tippett. She has an excellent voice with a rich, lovely timbre, steady tonal emission and superb styling and pitch, but her diction, alas, is not clear. She rolls her “r’s,” but other than that, all you can make out are vowel sounds—not complete words most of the time, although in “The Reeling Clouds Stagger” I did make out the words “while rising slow” in her low range. That was about it. Here, the whimsical quality that was evident in the previous two works is subjugated towards a more serious use. Berkeley still uses those wide intervallic leaps, but somehow manages to make them sound more “serious” here.

The Sonnet for Orpheus, one of his Three Rilke Sonnets, is a more lyrical piece with more of a tonal center, opening with a plaintive cello solo before moving into the vocal line. The disc concludes with the slow-moving piece for flute, clarinet and harp titled Seven. The liner notes only suggest that the music is based somewhat on the two-note opening of the Mahler 9th Symphony and a bit on the musical style of Erik Satie.

This is an interesting and diverse program of music, well crafted and certainly worth hearing!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Michael Berkeley’s Whimsical & Moving “Winter Fragments”

  1. More generational composers: Sir Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik; Elizabeth Maconchy and Nicola LeFanu; Terry and Gyan Riley; and the Dussek family – Jan, his wife Sophia, and daughter Olivia. Schoenberg wasn’t childless: his daughter Nuria married Luigi Nono.
    Near my home is an area where all the street names are British composers: Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst, Britten, Tippett, Elgar, Frankel, Truscott, Dowland, Purcell, Dyson, Smart, Arnold, Addinsell, Alwyn, Fitkin (he’s younger than me!), and oddly – Dussek (Jan did have a career in London, but both of the women were British). I am impressed by the knowledge of the person who did this – even my music-loving friends hadn’t heard of Truscott. Alas, I suspect that most of the residents won’t have a clue what the names are about.

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    • Since I don’t consider Panufnik much of a composer, I couldn’t care less about his descendants. Since you are apparently British, of course you know all these names. I’ve never even heard of Frankel, Truscott, Dyson, Smart or Fitkin. A lot of this does not travel well to America,

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