Celebrated cellist Adrian Brendel and pianist Christopher Glynn join the Berkeley Ensemble to bring the Little Venice Music Festival to a close. The concert features the London premiere of festival patron Michael Berkeley’s 'At A Solemn Wake', dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Deborah Rogers. Also on the programme is intimate chamber music from Vienna, including Schubert’s great C major string quintet and Mozart’s Kegelstatt trio. Included in the ticket price are tea or coffee and cake, for a suitably Viennese flavour.
Running concurrently with the Kings Place events was the
Little Music Festival: its 15th edition, but the first mounted by its new
organisers the Berkeley Ensemble. At St Saviour's Warwick Avenue, I caught
their attractive closing concert. Adrian Brendel was guest cellist in a
gripping account of Schubert's String Quintet, and he lent the composer's
Arpeggione Sonata (given with the pianist Christopher Glynn) what
suddenly struck me as the rare beauty of a historic recording.
They played a recent short work by Michael Berkeley, At a
Solemn Wake, twice. Like his Violin Concerto, unveiled at the Proms,
it is a memorial for his wife, Deborah Rogers, a unique spirit. Indeed, the
concerto derives from this elegiac mini sonata. Both have outbursts of yelping grief,
which in the concerto involves using an electrified second solo instrument. At
a Solemn Wake is comparatively restrained and worked out with steady
precision. But the cello’s strident unaccompanied soaring early on couldn't but
seem naked pain.
Sunday Times, 16 October 2016
Touch Light is 'Beautifully created rapture'
19 September 2016
The five discs The Marian Consort have so far released focus on music written between the 15th and 17th centuries, so their latest recording of works written between 1947 and 2005 would seem a pretty drastic departure from their usual hunting ground.
But the clue is in their name, and a significant theme running through their repertory is music devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And you do not get much more Mary-centred than the Stabat mater. As David Wordsworth writes in his excellent booklet-notes for the Delphian disc, this ‘is without doubt one of Berkeley’s finest works’. Its scoring for a dozen instruments (string quartet, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and percussion) and six solo voices has no doubt led to its total neglect by the record industry.
The Marian Consort seem to be the first to have made a commercial recording of Berkeley’s Stabat mater but a performance was broadcast by the BBC on March 1, 1965. That recording has been issued as part of Lyrita’s series resurrecting recordings taken by Richard Itter from radio broadcasts between 1952 and 1996. There is a tremendous intensity about this 1965 performance, conducted by Norman Del Mar, but despite a fine line-up of soloists and some fervent playing from members of the ECO, it does not always grasp the essential intimacy of the work in the way that Wordsworth and his Marian Consort do so effectively.
The Marian Consort’s background in early music pays dividends in their superb precision of pitch, impeccable rhythmic placing and beautiful diction. These are vividly displayed in the haunting Mass for Five Voices, written for Westminster Cathedral, and Judica me, commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival to mark the composer’s 75th birthday. The lush harmonies that open the latter are sumptuously delivered and beautifully recorded here.
The Lyrita disc also includes a 1963 broadcast of the premiere of Berkeley’s cantata Batter my heart, three-person’d God under the composer’s direction, which unfortunately sounds its age, as well as a splendidly atmospheric recording of his mighty – and, for my money, grossly underappreciated – Magnificat, again directed by the composer, with the combined forces of three major London cathedrals. With a lot of help from the all-enveloping St Paul’s acoustic, this has a real sense of awe about it.
While the Lyrita disc is devoted entirely to Lennox Berkeley, the Delphian one includes a short setting for soprano, countertenor and string quartet by his son of his own text (not given with the other texts in the booklet but buried within the booklet-notes). According to Michael Berkeley, Touch Light is a deliberate attempt to evoke the ‘rapturous love duets’ of Monteverdi and Purcell and ‘a homage to these masters of early opera’. The musical language is far removed from the 17th century but the sense of great – almost erotic – rapture is beautifully created by Zoë Brookshaw and Rory McCleery in a performance of shimmering intensity.
Michael Berkeley's Touch Light (2005) looks back to the love duets to be found in the operas of Monteverdi and Purcell. His response is a rapturous one, richly expressive. The use of a soprano (Zoë Brookshaw), a countertenor (Rory McCleery) and a string quintet ravishes the senses. It's a wonderful way to end an enlightening and enriching release, which is also excellent in terms of recording and presentation.
Chloë Hanslip gives the world premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Michael Berkeley, preceded by Paul Dukas's brief, intoxicating ballet La Péri. Jac van Steen conducts excerpts from one of the most dramatic and colourfully scored of all ballets, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, a highlight of the Proms series marking 400 years since the death of Shakespeare.
Michael Berkeley — son of Sir Lennox Berkeley, and godson of Benjamin Britten — pays due respect to his musical lineage. His new Violin Concerto, which was premiered at Wednesday’s Prom, is Brittenesque in its haunting bareness and acerbic touches. But it also embraces tabla-playing, percussive spoken interjections and the banshee howl of the electric violin.
Which could have reeked of gimmickry, if Berkeley had less taste and imagination. Instead he works like a master chef, seeking out ever more arresting combinations of flavours: a keening violin melody set against a primal drum crash; the sounds of heavy metal contrasted with the soft thud of the tabla. Not for nothing did this composer spend several years performing as a rock musician in his youth. He clearly has a deep understanding of the tools at his disposal, and he is not afraid to use them.
Nor is he afraid to write music that wears its heart on its sleeve. The concerto is dedicated to the memory of Berkeley’s wife, the literary agent Deborah Rogers, who died in 2014. Everything about it — perhaps especially the lacerating sound of the electric violin — paints a vivid, yet never over-sentimentalised, portrait of grief.
Of all the sonorities expected in a new composition by Michael Berkeley, I'd never have imagined thwacks on the tabla. Yet there those Indian drums were, pricking the air from the very first bar - the first bar, moreover, of a violin concerto. Wonders will never cease.
Nor did they diminish as the work pressed on to the high-pitched flight of the soloist Chloë Hanslip, wailing like a lark in distress. Other tone colours soon emerged; colours of rage, regret, a blue reverie and the funky buzz of an electric violin - another unexpected sonority.
Yet no colour in this Proms commission was included just for show; Berkeley needed a kaleidoscopic range because he was reflecting the emotional rollercoaster travelled during personal loss and grief. This is a violin concerto dedicated to Berkeley's late wife, the literary agent Deborah Rogers, who died suddenly in 2014.
It certainly moved me, especially when the 25-minute structure finally reached its melodic core with the violin, lightly accompanied, echoing the theme of his earlier memorial piece, At a Solemn Wake. I cherished too those passing radiant textures, all the more precious for the minefield of explosions around.
Hanslip's poetic touch kept every note alive and fresh whatever the violin, acoustic or electric; so did the subtle tabla tattoo of Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzáles. The conductor Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales contributed their own finesse to music of consequence and feeling.
The Prom began impressively with the chiselled fanfare and sensuous body of Dukas's "poeme danse" La Peri; the BBC NOW always handle French music well. Selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, given a safety-first performance, filled the second half, but couldn't dislodge Berkeley's music for violin, tabla and the grieving heart
Geoff Brown, The Times, 29 July 2016
Hanslip plays an electric violin as well as the standard instrument. There’s also a prominent part for tabla, played by Diego Espinosa Cruz González, which acts like a continuo in a Baroque concerto. The intense formal lament that opens the work gives way to a central aria of loss and nostalgia, exquisitely accompanied by rippling harps and celeste. Hanslip takes up the raw electric violin for the finale, a ferocious outpouring of rage and grief, though a quiet coda in which she reverts to the standard instrument brings the work to a close in a mood of resignation. Her performance can only be described as a tour de force.
... Attention to detail and a particular musical identity marked out Michael Berkeley’s Violin Concerto as a major achievement for the composer. He has written it ‘In memoriam DR’ – Deborah Rogers, Berkeley’s wife, who died two years ago – and he has folded in other influences in the sequence of three movements, played continuously: Nigel Kennedy using an electric violin in a tribute to Jimi Hendrix – hence the instrument Chloë Hanslip plays for most of the third movement; Berkeley’s own earlier tribute to his partner, At a Solemn Wake for cello and piano, recast as the ‘Elegiac, wistful’ slow middle movement; and the obbligato role for tabla that has a strong presence in the first, a result of Private Passions meetings with Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney. In his programme note, Berkeley wrote that his Violin Concerto “started to write itself”, and the music is a remarkably spontaneous expression of love-song and lament. From the start the soloist’s role has a restlessness to it, like a cadenza trying to find a point of resolution, something Berkeley uses to great effect as the music moves into the slow section and at the end of the work with a shadowy evocation of Bach, reminiscent of the close of Berg’s Violin Concerto. Diego Espinosa Cruz González’s tabla pattering dovetailed sinuously with Hanslip’s refined, tranquil playing, as though she was trying to discern a sense of direction from the table and she combined candour of expression with remarkable inwardness, at its most intense in the lovely slow movement, attended by harps and celesta. The contrast made by the raw keening of the electric violin was shocking, and I did wonder if the tension Berkeley wanted to sustain wouldn’t in the end have been better served by acoustic violin (to which the soloist reverts in the ‘Epilogue’). In a smaller hall, the amplification would have been painful. Although Berkeley uses a large orchestra, he does so sparingly, and Van Steen’s precise direction ensured a mobile, luminous sound for a little over twenty minutes.
... There’s nothing indeterminate about Berkeley’s fiercely personal Violin Concerto. Premiered the following night by BBCNOW and soloist Chloë Hanslip, and dedicated to the composer’s late wife, this striking work is less a concerto and more a threnody for solo violin, a song of grief whose cries become a shout of anger as the violinist trades their acoustic instrument for an electric one. With Hanslip as passionate, eloquent advocate the work hit hard, daring to make death beautiful in music whose songs strove constantly against the rumbling disagreements on timpani and tabla. It’s a work that could do for the violin what John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil did for the cello, a commission that – unlike the rather anonymous Payne – might make it to that crucial second performance and into the repertoire.
The score’s centrepiece, dominating the second of its three inter-connected movements, is an orchestral revisiting of At a Solemn Wake, which Berkeley wrote for cello and piano soon after Rogers’s death. Its elegiac, almost sentimental tone sets it apart from other material here, and it was hauntingly played by the amicable soloist, Chloë Hanslip. Although this not a double concerto, another soloist shares the billing, since a prominent part for the tabla (performed by Diego Espinosa Cruz González) reflects Berkeley’s growing fondness for Indian music and dance.
At its best, Berkeley’s music is satisfyingly elusive, English in tone yet hard to pin down as such. In the first movement the violin occasionally leans towards the rhapsodic musings of A Lark Ascending, but it is mostly austere. A percussive summons — tabla briefly answering orchestral percussion — introduces the violin in music of mesmerising stillness, where slightly bendy tone gives a suggestion of wailing. But even the section marked “Agitated” is unsettled rather than angry.
Two of the country’s leading young ensembles come together to explore bold and fiendish music by Michael Berkeley and his father Lennox. Plus works by the current Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir and young composers Matthew Martin and Hilary Campbell.
At the heart of the programme is one of Lennox Berkeley’s finest and most substantial sacred works, the Stabat Mater, a stunning depiction of the human predicament centring on Mary’s suffering during Christ’s crucifixion.
The evening begins with a pre-concert talk at 19:00 by Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny.
It was the Virgin Mary who figured in the programme by the Marian Consort and Berkeley Ensemble, performing separately and, in works by Michael and Lennox Berkeley, combined. A superb motet by Judith Weir, Ave Regina Caelorum, began the Marian choral sequence, interrupted in the first half by Michael Berkeley’s bristlingly alive wind quintet Catch Me If You Can. His rapturous, Anglo-Monteverdian Touch Light, a brief excursion for string quintet, soprano and countertenor (named), led in the second half – which was directed by David Wordsworth – satisfyingly into the devotional stringency of his father’s Stabat Mater, a substantial, neglected opus (33 minutes) for six singers and 12 players, composed in 1947 for Britten’s English Opera Group. More than substantial it proved downright astonishing. A sort dramatic ritual, each pair of 20 Latin verses a distinct vocal configuration, it revealed an inventiveness that, for all the hints of Stravinsky, was personal, profound and unremitting.
Paul Driver, Sunday Times 12 June 2016
The rest of the evening featured Michael Berkeley. Firstly with a woodwind quintet, Catch Me If You Can, a lively piece in three movements based on the idea of children's games oscillating between fun and violence - a fine vehicle for the virtuosity of the Berkeley Ensemble. Michael Berkeley's Touch Light for soprano, counter-tenor and strings is laid out over a ground bass; was inspired by Monteverdi but a prominent melody brings to mind Elgar's Enigma theme, in G major but with the first two notes reversed. With Ray McCleary and Emma Walshe both in ecstatic voice we enjoyed some of the most rapturous moments of the whole evening. The way in which the solo voices weave in and out of their melodic lines creates a most original effect whilst never straying too far from an often clouded but ultimately radiant G major. The first half opened with effective short choral pieces, commissioned by the Marian Consort and based on the Virgin Mary. Judith Weir's Ave Regino Caelorum; Matthew Martin's Ave Virgo Sanctissima; and Hilary Campbell's Ave Maria, all immaculately performed.
Straddling the interval were two works by Sir Lennox’s son, Michael. Catch Me If You Can keeps five wind-players busy in largely playful music inspired by children’s behaviour and games. A slow and atmospheric central panel is framed by two infectious movements – their sly rhythms and leaping melodic contours dispatched with assurance and alacrity. Touch Light, for soprano and countertenor with strings, draws its creative energy from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Walshe and McCleery proved to be ideal partners in bringing this exquisite duet to life; the melting dissonances a kind of ‘death by chocolate’ ecstasy. I’d love to hear Michael Berkeley’s response to the Song of Solomon!
Royal Ballet takes 'Tetractys The Art of Fugue' to Moscow
24 June 2014
In summer 2014, as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, The Royal Ballet returned to Moscow in its first visit since 2003. Celebrating the rich and diverse cultural heritage of both countries, The Royal Ballet performed in The Bolshoi Theatre, Theatre Square, Moscow, between 17 and 22 June, presenting a hugely successful triple bill of Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, Rhapsody and DGV: Danse à grande vitesse.
Tetractys – The Art of Fugue, an exhilarating fusion of baroque music and contemporary dance, received its UK premiere in February. It is arranged by Michael Berkeley and choreographed by Wayne McGregor.
The work's brain and heart were finely balanced in the dancing of the Royal Ballet's leading artists - the dazzling Natalia Osipova and the contrasting watercolour tenderness of Sarah Lamb, the light-footed male dancer Edward Watson and exotic Marianela Nunez, and once again McRae. They gave the ballet the savour of a highly exclusive, handmade gift to art.
Rhapsody was created in 1980 by Frederick Ashton for the 80th birthday of HM The Queen Mother. It is a celebratory showpiece, set to sweeping music by Sergey Rachmaninoff, and pays tribute to virtuoso dance. Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à grande vitesse is a high-octane finale, set to Michael Nyman's score, MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse), which was composed to commemorate the 1993 inauguration of the north European line of the French train TGV.
Into the Ravine - "beautiful sound and exquisite performances"
American Record Review
31 May 2014
This attractive release from the wonderful Carducci Quartet includes a marvelous work by Michael Berkeley (son of Lennox), an oboe quintet subtitled Into the Ravine (after a painting by John Craxton). The plaintive work, in a decidedly post-tonal language, exploits the timbral possibilities in the combination of oboe with quartet or with individual string players and emphasizes long-breathed, lyrical melody that retains a thoroughly English cast while remaining resolutely modernistic.
McCabe's Seventh Quartet, written for the Carduccis, also reveals a fresh, light-as-air melodic idiom; and its thoroughly classical form is ingeniously designed. Adrian Williams's Fourth Quartet, first performed in 2009, is more rhapsodic and suggests a neoromantic orientation. The sound is beautiful and the performances exquisite.
Clarion Call and Gallop is 'high spirited and buoyant piece'
Reviews of digital download from Resonus Classics (catalogue no. RES10127)
17 February 2014
Clarion Call opens with the newest work, Michael Berkeley's 2013 Clarion Call and Gallop for septet which was written specially for the Berkeley Ensemble. It was written during the composer's residency at the Trasimeno Music Festival in Italy. A high spirited and buoyant piece, it has a very distinctive texture with much high clarinet writing against spikier textures from the other instruments with the whole having a lovely transparency and airiness, combined with a very strong character. The CD booklet's notes refer to 'high jinx' and that is true, the piece has a light-hearted spirited feel, though in fact much of the musical material comes from Berkeley's anthem for the enthronement of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury.
This disc opens with Michael Berkeley's crisp, incisive and high-spirited Clarion Gall and Gallop (2013), written specially for this mixed ensemble (string quintet plus clarinet, bassoon and horn). Blue Medusa (2002) by John Casken celebrates the tonal possibilities of the bassoon by mixing myth and nature, Gorgon and vicious-tailed jellyfish. Howard Ferguson's Octet (1933) and Charles Wood's Septet (1889), both rewarding works from another era, merit the proper attention they are given on this imaginative disc.
On this, its debut release, the Berkeley Ensemble (whose members are drawn from the Southbank Sinfonia) gives warmly communicative and commendably polished readings, most truthfully recorded and balanced within an ideally intimate acoustic.
Michael's anthem for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 'Listen, listen, O My Child', has received widespread praise with The Independent calling it 'a musical highlight... a soaring anthem'. Fred Hiltz, the Archbishop of Canada, commented, "It began as a gentle whisper. 'Listen, Listen, O my Child, Listen carefully to your teacher's guidance. Incline the ear of your heart, Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving Father's advice.' That gentle whisper swelled into a chorus that reverberated in every alcove in that vast cathedral. And then as powerfully as it had spoken to everyone in that great congregation, it quietened to a whisper again."
The quintet grows from a three-note idea which blossoms out into increasingly more complex textures, the oboe variously blending in with the strings or, more significantly, standing apart as a contrasting voice.
Often quietly elegiac (though the subtleties of Berkeley's expanded tonality require more than one hearing to be fully appreciated) the piece becomes hauntingly intense as it progresses, culminating in an almost valedictory coda, where the initial motif returns in different forms and the ending has the oboe intriguingly breaking off in mid-sentence – a wonderfully pithy effect.
Michael Berkeley's Organ Concerto received its London Premiere at the 2011 Proms when it was played by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac Van Steen.
One of Berkeley's most frequently performed orchestral works, the Organ Concerto was inspired by the Easter ritual of bringing light into a darkened cathedral. There is a strong dramatic element to the piece with three processing and chanting trumpets 'setting alight' the orchestra. The huge space of the Royal Albert Hall was put to good use as was the massive Father Willis organ which alternated passages of great delicacy with moments of overwhelming power. Until recently both the big London concert venues have had their organs out of commission, thus delaying the London debut of the Organ Concerto until now.
Heralded by a bell, its opening is perfectly suited to the Proms, with three trumpeters interlacing chromatically from different parts of the auditorium, suggesting an enchanted garden of sounds. (Michael Church, The Independent)
Off-stage trumpets joined the soloist David Goode in making their mark in Michael Berkeley's arresting Organ Concerto – an Easter journey from darkness to light, receiving its London premiere after 24 years. Cerebral, sometimes belligerent, though lightened with lyrical flights and delicate colours, it resounded splendidly through the Albert Hall. (Geoff Brown, The Times)
Berkeley has described the piece's origins in liturgical rituals, specifically those connected with Easter, and also in his own experiences as a chorister. But what immediately impresses about the result is the score's sense of propulsion, which rarely lets up, and its regular use of striking material, right from the dramatic opening gesture in which three solo trumpets, positioned around the building, sound a deliberately unsynchronised chant-like motif. Benefiting from the impact of Lutosawski, Berkeley's imaginative orchestration holds the attention throughout the 20-minute span, throwing up strong ideas and keeping them in interactive play. Organist David Goode, meanwhile, showed the bracing potential of the mighty Royal Albert Hall instrument at full tilt. (George Hall, The Guardian)
The brass high in the Gallery at the start of Michael Berkeley's Organ Concerto heralded a revitalised BBCNOW. The huge and open space of the Royal Albert Hall was ideal for the striking opening to this magnificent work. Surprisingly this was its first London performance; yet it dates from 1987, employs standard winds plus percussion and strings, so why it isn't performed more often is an enigma. Chris Caspell, Classical Source
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales played splendidly for the quietly masterful Jac van Steen. The player, David Goode, was soloist in the belated London premiere of Michael Berkeley's 1987 Organ Concerto, an imaginative single-span work occupied with the meaning of Easter and deploying peripatetic trumpeters to symbolise Pentecostal fire. The way they fitted with the unclichéd, undomineering organ writing and the freely shifting, Lutoslawski-ish orchestral textures into an acoustic blend was satisfying. Paul Driver, Sunday Times
Three Rilke Sonnets is "new-minted classic"
Premiere of Three Rilke Sonnets
Wigmore Hall, 23 March 2011
Three Rilke Sonnets, the new song cycle for Claire Booth and the Nash Ensemble, was premiered on March 23 2011 in the Wigmore Hall and broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Hear and Now on 23 April. Conducted by Lionel Friend, these settings of Sonnets by Rilke formed part of a Nash Inventions concert which also included works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Simon Holt, David Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Michael Church in the Independent called it "a new-minted classic", while Guy Dammann described the Sonnets in the Guardian as "surprisingly expressionistic and densely variegated, Berkeley's detailed and inventive score fizzed in frequent and sustained collision with the emotional charge of Rilke's verse".
For You receives rapturous reception
European Premiere of For You
Teatro Olimpico, 25 November 2010
Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan discuss new opera For You
Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan received a rapturous reception following the highly successful European premiere of their opera, For You, at Teatro Olimpico, Piazza Gentile da Fabriano, Rome on 25 November 2010. For more details, download a flyer here.