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Monday, 10 December 2018

Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley

MIchael Berkeley - Winter Fragments - Berkeley Ensemble - Resonus Classics
Winter Fragments - Michael Berkeley chamber music; Fleur Barron, Berkeley Ensemble, Dominic Grier; Resonus Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 December 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
With music spanning nearly 30 years, a serious exploration of Michael Berkeley's chamber music

Winter Fragments on Resonus Classics is the latest disc by the Berkeley Ensemble to feature music by Michael Berkeley. On this disc the ensemble (Sophie Matter and Francesc Barritt violin, Dan Shilladay viola, Gemma Wareham cello, John Slack clarinets, Andrew Watson bassoon, Paul Cott horn) is joined by Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), Luke Russell (flutes), Emily Cockbill (oboe & cor anglais), Sarah Hatch (percussion), Helen Sharp (harp) and Dominic Grier (conductor) to perform Berkeley's Catch Me If You Can, Clarinet Quintet, Winter Fragments, Sonnet for Orpheus and Seven, music which spans nearly 30 years of Berkeley's composing life.

The disc opens with Berkeley's 1994 work for wind ensemble, Catch Me If You Can, which was written for the Haffner Wind Ensemble to take into schools, so that Berkeley's inspirations for the piece varied from Janacek's Mladi (youth) to the cruelty of children's games. In three movements, the first presents fragments which collect together in a busy dialogue where things seem to happen simultaneously. The second is slow and spare, with a sense of narrative to it and this feeling of a story being told continues with the perky final movement.

The Clarinet Quintet is the earliest work on the disc, dating from 1983. Berkeley says in the article in the CD booklet that the quintet includes a melody inspired by Gregorian chant. This is presented at the opening on the clarinet and gets a quietly intrigued response from the quartet before a spiky dialogue develops which includes a rather popular sounding tune. The opening material returns at the end, leading to a dark epilogue. This is striking and rather serious piece, one long movement of nearly 15 minutes duration.

By contrast, Winter Fragments from 1996 is a series of seven short songs for mezzo-soprano and ensemble setting words ranging from Berkeley's own to Shakespeare, James Thomson, Longfellow and David Malouf, the prevailing mood being melancholy thoughts of Winter. Whilst there are lively and dramatic moments, there is a sense of seriousness and intensity to the piece often with rather spare scoring. Berkeley's music is broadly tonal whilst not eschewing complexity and the writing for the voice is rather instrumental with jagged lines.

Sonnet for Orpheus is from Berkeley's 2010 Three Rilke Sonnets which sets a Rilke sonnet from Part one, No. II, from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus for voice and viola. The result is terrific, rather bleak and serious, very spare in its writing. The two lines (again with Berkeley treating the voice very instrumentally) duetting with great intensity.

The final work on the disc is Seven (from 2007) for flute (doubling alto flute), oboe, clarinet, tam-tam, harp, violin and cello. The way that Berkeley uses the various instruments against the harp has a very Mahlerian cast, the whole being very thoughtful and not a little pastoral.

The disc is accompanied by a fascinating article in the CD booklet in which Michael Berkeley discusses his works and his approach to composing with the Berkeley ensemble's Dan Shilladay, though I would have welcomed a little more basic information about the pieces being performed.

Berkeley's music on this disc is intelligent and beautifully constructed, though at times I felt that we were being held at arm's length emotionally. But the pieces receive very fine performances from the performers, and this is a disc which enables you not only to explore Berkeley's music but to experience how it has changed over the years.

Michael Berkeley (born 1948) - Catch Me If You Can (1994)
Michael Berkeley - Clarinet Quintet (1983)
Michael Berkeley - Winter Fragment (1996)
Michael Berkeley - Sonnet for Orpheus (2010)
Michael Berkeley - Seven (2007)
Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano)
Berkeley Ensemble
Dominic Grier (conductor)
Recorded in The New Maltings, Alpheton, Suffolk, 6-8 March 2018
RESONUS CLASSICS RES10223 1CD [59:03]

Available from Amazon.

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