Rare Performance of Berkeley’s Stabat Mater Combines Austerity with Profundity

18/07/2016

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Michael Berkeley, Colin Matthews, Poulenc,Lennox Berkeley: The Berkeley Ensemble, The Marian Consort / David Wordsworth (conductor), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 17.7.2016. (RJ)

The Berkeley Ensemble [Luke Russell (flute), Emily Cockbill (oboe), John Slack (clarinet, bass clarinet), Andrew Watson (bassoon), Paul Cott (horn), Fontane Liang (harp), Jolwey Cragg (percussion), Sophie Mather (violin), Francesca Barritt (violin), Matthew Kettle (viola), Gemma Wareham (cello), Lachland Radford (double bass)]

The Marian Consort [Emma Walshe (soprano), Gwendolen Martin (soprano), Rory McCleery (countertenor and director), Benedict Hymas (tenor), Joh Stainsby (baritone), Nick Ashby (bass)]

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro
Michael Berkeley: Touch Light; Clarinet Quintet
Colin Matthews: Five Concertinos (to Henri Dutilleux)
Poulenc: Un soir de neige, FP 126
Lennox Berkeley: Stabat Mater

Sir Lennox Berkeley enjoyed a close relationship with the Cheltenham Music Festival and was its president for a number of years. But this mild-mannered man also enjoyed many lasting friendships, and it was an excellent idea to recall some of these in the first half of this afternoon concert on the final day of the Cheltenham Music Festival.

Ravel befriended the young Lennox Berkeley and suggested he study with Nadia Boulanger – a step which changed the course of his life and career. The French composer was represented by his sumptuous Introduction and Allegro with its wonderful harp passages played with such finesse and dexterity by Fontane Liang.

Michael Berkeley (now Lord Berkeley) is, of course, Sir Lennox’s son and was also associated with the Festival for ten years as its artistic director. The first of his works played, Touchlight, was a gentle, slightly sad piece for ensemble, soprano and countertenor in which the singers blended in beautifully with the instruments. His Clarinet Quintet began with a sublime melody for solo clarinet, sensitively played by John Slack, after which the music slowly adopted a darker character. A lovely more rhapsodic passage for clarinet led into a rather more turbulent episode until a moving cello solo from Gemma Wareham ushered in a more elegiac mood. It was interesting to reflect how to some extent the character of the father’s music had been assimilated by the son.

Dutilleux was another close friend of Sir Lennox, although their musical language was far apart, and we were treated not to an actual work by the French composer but to Colin Matthews’ tribute to him, five widely contrasted concertinos.

Finally there was music by one of Sir Lennox’s closest friends, Francis Poulenc. Un soir de neige is one of Poulenc’s more melancholy pieces, a setting of five poems by Paul Éluard in which the harshness and desolation of the winter takes its toll on the human spirit: “I grow weak, I am scattered, I confess my life, I confess my death, I confess the other”. The Marian Consort gave an outstanding performance of the work chilling the air with its bleak, uncompromising atmosphere.

Sir Lennox dedicated his 1947 Stabat Mater to another of his great friends, Benjamin Britten, who conducted its UK premiere. A setting of the medieval Latin poem (attributed to both Pope Innocent III and St Bonaventure) it meditates on the suffering of the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross, the ten sections take the form of solos, duets and choruses. The overture beginning with the woodwind had a slightly Oriental feel until the full ensemble with percussion created a chorale effect.

The Marian Consort sang the first half of the first verse a capella and were later joined by the instrumental ensemble to end on a strong Pertranivit gladius (The sword has passed). There was a gentle accompaniment to the solo soprano in O quam tristis which continued in the slow reverent baritone solo Quis est homo. The relative tranquillity came to an end in the violent Pro peccatis in which a vocal quartet recalled with horror Christ’s sufferings, but when the spotlight fell back on Mary inr Eia, mater the tenderness returned with the tenor addressing a prayer to her. After a fanfare the supplication became more fervent in the bass solo Sancta Maria which was followed by the more emotionally charged verse Fac te mecum from the countertenor. The choir returned for a prayer to the Virgin in Virgo virginum – singing a capella for the first three lines and joined by the musicians for the second three as in the first verse. There was some imaginative scoring in Fac me plagis in which the music conjured up flickering flames before soprano and ensemble led up to a dramatic climax with the terrifying vision of Judgement Day. But all was well: as the singers provided consolation in a final hymn with the expectation of Christ’s call, his Mother’s protection and the prospect of Paradise.

The performance was a truly gripping religious journey – solemn, austere, but profoundly spiritual – performed impeccably by the singers of the Marian Consort and the Berkeley Ensemble. Performances of this fine work have alas been few and far between since its composition and one hopes that a new (the first) recording of it will win this fine work new admirers. 

The recording incidentally has been reviewed on the Musicweb International website by John Quinn: http://www.“musicweb-international.com/classrev/2016/Jul/Berkeley_stabat_DCD34180.htm

Roger Jones

 

 

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