It’s a rare treat to hear this music, which occupies a distinctive if not especially innovative or influential place in 20th century English choral music. Lennox Berkeley’s sacred choral works are purely personal creations that, unlike with Britten or Vaughan Williams, do not seem born of innate genius but rather arise more from a profound desire to compose–and thus they exhibit substantial referential attributes (a bit of the early 20th-century French school, Britten, and Stravinsky at his more harmonically austere) and tend to impress more for their superb craftsmanship and idiomatic treatment of voices than for their inspired invention.
And it’s to Berkeley’s credit that what he created is some very sophisticated music that gives impetus and meaning to the well-known liturgical texts–namely the masses and Magnificat–and rouses our senses as we listen through the often edgy, dense, thorny harmonic terrain that usually leaves us without any clear melodic path to follow. The Sanctus of the Missa brevis Op. 57 shows what truly innovative impulses lay within Berkeley’s creative character, but it’s only in such brief moments that we enjoy such promising glimpses. The Three Latin Motets (1972) show another side to Berkeley’s development as a composer, a blatant flirtation with atonalism. The treble solo (unfortunately uncredited on this recording) in the middle of A Festival Anthem is a highlight, as is the wonderful choral singing–and fine organ playing–throughout. This is a difficult program that’s solidly and authoritatively presented, in ideally spacious, complementary sound. Choral music fans–especially those who appreciate the works of Britten–shouldn’t hesitate to explore this. [10/11/2003]