In Berkeley's 70th birthday year comes an attractive disc of five chamber pieces, performed by the eponymous ensemble dedicated to his music and that of his father, Lennox. These range from the 1983 Clarinet Quintet, with its medieval-pastoral strain, to an impassioned Rilke sonnet setting for mezzo-soprano and cello: Barron compels here and in the seven Winter Fragments (1996). The wind quintet Catch Me If You Can (1994) makes a spruce opener.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 7 October 2018
The Clarinet Quintet (1983) is spun from sinewy, twisting strands contrasting the playful impetuosity and dark-hued luminosity of John Slack’s clarinet to end in a moment of sublimely subdued beauty.
The Berkeley Ensemble, conducted by Dominic Grier and dedicated to music of the 20th and 21st centuries, provides endlessly responsive playing, whether alone or as part of the Winter Fragments song cycle, sung by Fleur Barron, who is also exceptional in the Sonnet for Orpheus (from Three Rilke Sonnets).
Even when working with large-scale forces such as opera and music theatre, Michael Berkeley's style and expression remain attuned to the more intimate nuances of chamber music. Perhaps this is because the chamber context provides such an effective vehicle for one of his music's most distinctive features - the often dichotomous interplay between the individual and the group... the Berkeley Ensemble, directed by Dominic Grier, are excellent throughout - entirely at one with the music of their namesake composer.
Pwyll ap Sion, Gramophone, December 2018
Winter Fragments: Chamber Music by Michael Berkeley is available on Resonus RES10223, released 28 September 2018
Clarion Call and Gallop is 'high spirited and buoyant piece'
Reviews of digital download from Resonus Classics (catalogue no. RES10127)
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.
Clarion Call is available on Resonus RES10127, released 03 March 2014
Into the Ravine - "beautiful sound and exquisite performances"
American Record Review
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.
Into the Ravine is available on Signum SIGCD350, released 09 December 2013
Baa Baa Black Sheep CD Review
Review by Brian Hunt published in Classic CD issue 60, April 1995
Michael Berkeley's debut opera focuses on a crucial episode in Rudyard Kipling's childhood. When Rudyard was five, he and his sister were brought from India to England to stay with a woman he knew as Aunty Rosa. She was a fanatical Christian who thought the children had been contaminated by their contract with Hindus. With the gleeful support of her 13-year-old son she set about beating the wickedness out of them. Separated from his parents and having no defence against this abuse, Kipling escaped into an imaginary world of his own invention - the world that was later to become The Jungle Book. The opera's title comes from an autobiographical sketch by Kipling, describing his experience in what he called "The House of Desolation".
In David Malouf's libretto, all the real-world characters have counterparts in scenes drawn from The Jungle Book. Kipling himself (called Punch in the autobiography) becomes Mowgli, his mother becomes Mother Wolf, and so on. Berkeley's musical idiom, which a decade ago was debilitatingly "accessible", is now much richer for its greater complexity. There is a flavour of late Britten here, though the strongest echoes are of the middle movement of Tippett's Triple Concerto, itself permeated by the oriental influence of the gamelan.
The high tessitura of much of the music is both child-like and Eastern-exotic in its effect. This is a realm of fluttering, watery moonlight with dark shapes moving beneath. One could comment that the opera is all recitative and no aria - in the rare lyrical moments, such as Bagheera's "No, little brother", a rather sentimental heart is exposed. Yet, as in all the best art, the opera has a life of its own: even apparent miscalculations work in context. The first Jungle Book episode is a confused narrative, but thus it perfectly expresses a child's encounter with an unfamiliar world.
The performance has incredible confidence, including the contribution of boy treble Malcolm Larimer. Acting may take precedence over singing, but the opera doesn't suffer for it. This is first-rate ensemble work. Two quibbles: what is sung frequently differs from the printed text; and the box should state that this is a live recording. However, Opera North, Collins Classics and BBC Radio 3 (whose recording has been remixed for CD) must be congratulated on bringing us such a rewarding production of a magnificent first opera.
Baa Baa Black Sheep (1993) - Malcolm Lorimer (Punch, young Mowgli); William Dazely (Mowgli); Ann Taylor-Morley (Judy, Grey Wolf); George Moseley (Father, Father Wolf); Eileen Hulse (Mother, Mother Wolf); Henry Newman (Captain, Akela); Fiona Kimm (Auntirosa, Baldeo); Philip Sheffield (Harry, Sheer Khan); Chorus of Opera North; English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
Baa Baa Black Sheep is available on Chandos Records CHAN 10186(2), released 09 February 2004