Berkeley’s Complete Piano Pieces

HO1806-18 Booklet Cover hi res

BERKELEY: March. For Vera. Mr. Pilkington’s Toye. 6 Preludes for Piano. Piano Sonata. Concert Study in Eb. 3 Pieces, Op. 2. Prelude and Capriccio. Toccata. Piano Pieces (1927). 5 Short Pieces, Op. 4. 4 Concert Studies, Op. 24/1. 4 Piano Studies, Op. 82. Paysage. 3 Mazurkas (Hommage à Chopin). Scherzo. Mazurka Op. 101/2. Improvisation on a Theme of Manuel de Falla. Polka / Douglas Stevens, pno / Hoxa HS1806-18

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) was a British composer who, even within his own country, worked largely in obscurity, overshadowed by a long list of English composers from Vaughan Williams to Tippett. The liner notes state that his most famous works within Great Britain were his 4 Poems of St. Teresa of Avila, the Missa Brevis, the Flute Sonatina and the 6 Preludes for Piano. Here in America, perhaps his most famous work was the marvelous Horn Trio that he wrote for, and was recorded by, Dennis Brain.

Pianist and organist Douglas Stevens earned his PhD at the University of Bristol focusing on the music of Berkeley, thus he is quite qualified to put this composer’s best foot forward. The liner notes, by Stevens himself, state that “Berkeley’s music displays a wide variety of influences, from eighteenth-century Classicism through to the Romanticism of Fauré and Chopin, contemporary French music of the early twentieth century and Britten,” but the story is a bit more complicated than that. According to Wikipedia, his early music was “broadly tonal, influenced by the Neoclassical music of Stravinsky,” with his French influences being partly encouraged by his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. In 1948, Berkeley wrote that “I have never been able to derive much satisfaction from atonal music. The absence of key makes modulation an impossibility, and this, to my mind, causes monotony […] I am not, of course, in favour of rigidly adhering to the old key-system, but some sort of tonal centre seems to me a necessity.” But by the mid-1950s his opinion had changed. He later told Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer that “it’s natural for a composer to feel a need to enlarge his idiom.” He began including tone rows and serial techniques in his compositions around the time of his Concertino and his opera Ruth, later telling The Times that

I’m not opposed to serial music; I’ve benefited from studying it, and I have sometimes found myself writing serial themes – although I don’t elaborate on them according to strict serial principles, because I’m quite definitely a tonal composer. And there are some exceptions to the gospel of intellectualization – I enjoyed listening to the record of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître very much, because there the timbres of the music were attractive in themselves.

Which of course is the mark of an explorative musical mind. Most good composers evolve their styles, particularly those of the 20th century who began, as Berkeley did, in the years when French Impressionism was about as far as most composers went unless they were Schoenberg or Webern. And Berkeley, like Stravinsky himself, realized that the use of serialism had to be modified with one’s own personal style because Schoenberg, Webern and Berg had run the “basic” style of serialism into an artistic dead end. Alas, this was a lesson that American composers of the 1940s and ‘50s, infatuated with serialism, didn’t learn until it was too late and most people came to reject New Vienna School knockoffs.

The very early March from 1924 is a good indication of where he was at age 21 and where he might be going. Although somewhat based on the music of mediaeval France, the use of the pentatonic scale derives more from the influence of Ravel. In For Vere, from 1927, Berkeley reveals his strong passion for bitonality, yet Mr. Pilkington’s Toye from the previous year sounds as resolutely tonal as anything written by John Ireland.

We then jump ahead to the 6 Preludes of 1945, one of his most popular works. Here he is, if anything, more consistently tonal than in those late-1920s experiments despite the use of occasional harmonic twists, not terribly dissimilar from the early music of Britten. The second, slow prelude tosses in a bit of harmonic legerdemain, but nothing further out than some of the harmonic audacity in Alkan’s music. But to his sorrow, this work became immensely popular and was the yardstick British audiences used to hit Berkeley over the head for his later, more atonal works.

Although it is fairly early in the review, I would like to say a few words about Stevens’ playing here. It is generally brisk, taut, and lacking in overt sentimentality, which I heartily approve of—and knowing the little I do about Berkeley, I think the composer would approve, too. Indeed, it was possibly to his detriment that Berkeley was not a sentimental British composer. Lord knows the Brits love their sentimental stuff to death, which is one reason why Frank Bridge had such a hard time making it in the era of Elgar and Ireland, and why a large portion of the British classical audience disliked the change in Vaughan Williams’ music in the late 1940s. If there is one consistent quality in Berkeley’s music that Stevens brings out, it is an optimistic cheerfulness. Despite his strong affinity for the French style early on, Berkeley was clearly not a fan of wispy, melancholy or opaque music.

The 6 Preludes, though not at all “sentimental” music, are clearly melodic (hear, for instance, the sparkling theme of the fifth piece or the charming tune in the sixth) and thus quite accessible to the average concertgoer. This did not bode well for him when he shifted his style in the mid-1950s. Ironically, these preludes are immediately followed by his one and only Piano Sonata, written the same year (1945), and although the harmonic language is not yet atonal it is a far cry from the preludes. I completely agree with Stevens that this sonata shows that he was not just suited to writing works on a smaller scale. As indicated in the notes, the first movement “contains one of Berkeley’s experiments with monothematic sonata-form design, and the opening arpeggiated theme forms the basis of much of the material in the movement and in the rest of the sonata.” It is a gem of a piece, possibly the greatest “single piano sonata” since the one written by American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes back in 1920. I was especially impressed by the fast, technically difficult second movement, not because it is difficult to play but because it is simply overbrimming with brilliant ideas, all of which are fused together superbly. Consisting mostly of fast semiquaver passagework, alternating between tonality, bitonality and the pentatonic scale, it creates a melodic line based on the first movement but shortening the major 6th interval to a minor 3rd. Once again, the slow third movement has a great deal of feeling in it but is not sentimental, including several bitonal passages and a surprisingly (for him) stark and desolate-sounding central section. At eight minutes long, it is one of Berkeley’s most sustained creations, and is all the more impressive when one considers the sparseness of the theme and its development within this framework.

Stevens may disagree with me, but I heard in the concluding “Allegro” movement a similarity to the last movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony: a rather slow, out-of-tempo opening section which then moves into a fast-paced series of variations. Yes, the thematic material is completely different, but it’s the layout that is similar—and this movement, like the last movement of the “Eroica” Symphony, bears little relationship to the preceding three movements.

This 1945 Sonata is followed by the Concert Study in Eb from a decade later. Though not quite atonal, Berkeley clearly bypassed the concept of a “home key” throughout this work, suspending the music above a constantly shifting sequence of unusual chords except for the surprisingly tonal, slower middle section, which is then thrown to the winds when he returns to the whirlwind pattern of the opening.

But the 3 Pieces of 1935 sound even spikier harmonically than the Concert Study, particularly the opening “Etude” which he wrote for famous British pianist Harriet Cohen. Cohen supposedly found the piece “charming,” but charm is much more evident in the second piece, the “Berceuse” written for Alan Searle, though this piece travels through several keys and is by no means an “easy listen.” The third, piece, a “Capriccio” dedicated to Vere Pilkington, is all over the map harmonically as its maniacal little melody plunges forward.

One could expound on these and further delights as one proceeds through this recital. Every piece brings its own surprises and its own rewards. And the amazing this is that Berkeley was not, like so many composers then and now, stuck in a stylistic rut. Despite the similarity in his approach to harmony, he was never a slave to fashion, not even his own fashion. Berkeley wrote what he wanted to write in the manner of the moment; I don’t think he ever really consciously thought about his previous music, though of course parts of it were probably still in his mind. In short, he was a composer guided by inspiration rather than by the mechanics of composition, though his basic training was very sound and kept him from rambling in his music. The bitonality, pentatonic scales and even atonality all seemed to come naturally to him; he never sounded as if he were forcing the issue or trying to be clever for the sake of cleverness, as so many modern composers seem to be.

Take, for instance, the 3 Impromptus (1935) that open the second CD, particularly the first of them which is a 6/8 piece combining the feel of Spanish music with modern French-school harmony. Who else would have, or could have, even thought of such a piece? But Berkeley did, to our delight. And this opening “Moderato” is followed by a very strange “Andantino” written in a moderate pace with choppy rhythm, with little luftpausen between each note, creating a bizarre little melody that has its own resolution but also seems to repeat one motif over and over as it wend its way along.

Still, felt that the quality of works dropped off a bit in CD 2. Neither the 4 Piano Studies of 1972, Paysage, nor the 3 Mazurkas (Hommage à Chopin) impressed me very much; I mean, they’re nice music, but nothing to write home about.

Taken as a whole, however, this is terrific set, one definitely worth checking out for Berkeley aficionados.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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