For a while now I have been falling in love with this record.
I had come across Lennox Berkeley in biographies of Benjamin Britten, but it never occurred to me to seek out his music. In many of those books, Berkeley seemed washed aside in the slipstream. Maybe I was missing a stronger recommendation to seek him out, but I don’t think so.
So, thank you Naxos, for this superb recording. Found in their December ’15 catalogue, I think it was, Music for Solo Piano and Piano Duet is a revelation. This is music that deeply appeals to me because it carries such a – well – jazzy sort of immediacy to it, that it seems incredibly new and alive.
The standout is obviously the Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 20 Adagio, which starts as if it will have an almost Satie-like sensibility, but gradually rolls into a slow, almost bluesy conversation, murmuring at the edge of silence, with a late-night mood to beat the best of them. This Sonata was written during the Second World War, which must inform the edginess of the other movements, the rushing Presto maybe, and now in 2016, I think, just makes this music seem ahead of its time. If I listen to this, and then listen to something like Portrait in Jazz by the Bill Evans Trio, I really don’t think they’re in different worlds at all. Rather than looking backwards for inspiration, it seems very much of the moment, and looking forward.
I’m similarly fascinated by the Sonatina in E-Flat Major, which reminds me of that sudden excitement a while ago when I discovered Stravinsky’s piano music, also via Naxos. Like the Sonata, the slower movement of the Sonatina is quietly brilliant, and I connect with Berkeley’s music very strongly indeed, and really do feel a sense of amazement that it was written as long ago as it was. I love the spontaneity, the improvisatory feel.
Berkeley’s piano music has deeply affected me, because it seems to very clearly ‘fit’ in the timeline of a sound space I was familiar with long before I was able to appreciate ‘Classical Music’. After the opening notes of the final of the Op. 23 Preludes, it would not be too bonkers at all to say – I hope – that you can almost imagine the young Tom Waits playing it in a great cloud of cigarette smoke, under the spotlight of a cellar club stage, about to sing …