Sacred Choral Music
* Crux fidelis
* Missa brevis
* Magnificat & Nunc dimittis
* 3 Latin Motets, op. 83/1
* The Lord is my shepherd
* Mass for 5 Voices
* Look up, sweet babe
* A Festival Anthem
* Three Pieces, op. 72: Toccata
Jonathan Vaughan, organ;
Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Naxos 8.557277 Total time: 75:10
Summary for the Busy Executive: Composer as believer.
A composer once gushed to Vaughan Williams that "I wrote my oratorio on
my knees." Vaughan Williams replied, "I wrote Sancta Civitas on my bum."
How much does sincerity and a pure heart count for in art? I'd have to
conclude not very much. I've heard great sacred music from both vigorous
atheists and pious believers. As far as results go, there's little to
choose between them. For every Poulenc or Messiaen, you can find a
Vaughan Williams or a Bernard Stevens.
Lennox Berkeley was, with Constant Lambert, one of the two prominent
Stravinskians in England from between the wars to mid-century. He studied
with Nadia Boulanger and wrote some of the most elegant music in Britain,
much of it with Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto as the model.
He converted to Roman Catholicism in the late Twenties and during the
Thirties became vaguely leftist, but religion more than politics drove
his art, especially during and after World War II. In the Fifties, his
music began to change, as he dropped the pastiche elements of neoclassicism
and began to work in a more dissonant idiom, the violin concerto and the
third symphony characteristic of his later period. I prefer his earlier,
sprightlier days. Paradoxically, the neoclassicism gives his music more
of a personality.
However, in his religious music, Berkeley explicitly wanted to avoid the
personal. In terms of his aims, he's not all that successful. For most
listeners, however, this turns out a blessing. However, Berkeley engages
in several modes of religious musical expression. Crux fidelis has some
of the austerity of Poulenc's penitential motets as well as the stinging
ornament of Britten's Missa brevis. Berkeley always writes with superb
craft and grace, but he's not that individual a melodist. The themes
don't get their hooks into you, as Poulenc's and Britten's do. Berkeley's
music attracts more subtly, as one might admire or even love the well-made
fit of Shaker furniture or the polish of a Brancusi sculpture. Berkeley's
own Missa brevis packs a lot of music into a small space, with gorgeous
imitative counterpoint in almost every bar, but it runs cooler than the
motet, as does the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, with its very Britten-ish
organ part, one of Berkeley's few works specifically for the Anglican
Berkeley's setting of Psalm 23, written fairly late in his career,
displays both his characteristic virtues and his characteristic shortcomings.
There's nothing to complain of per se, but it does nothing to surprise
you. The opening strains are pastoral, and the valley of the shadow
of death gets laced with dissonance, before the pastoral mood returns.
The choral writing is harder to bring off than it sounds, but the effort
yields only relatively meager results. Psalm 23 counts as one of the
best known and has attracted a lot of composers. All the more reason,
then, to come up with something above the run of a very busy mill.
On the other hand, "Look up, sweet babe," to a text by the Catholic
metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw, is nothing short of gorgeous, using
exactly the same rhetorical strategies. Berkeley has a strong affinity
to the metaphysicals and has gone to period texts for many of his works.
The setting reminds me somewhat of Herbert Howells.
The Three Latin Motets for unaccompanied chorus fare even better. The
choral writing poses greater difficulties, but Berkeley's invention burns
brighter. We still don't have particularly dramatic settings, but they
don't have to be. Berkeley's music again works at a subtler level. The
concluding Regina coeli, for example, begins as a straightforward, quick
triple-time dance, as an expression of the word "laetare" (rejoice),
before it takes off for the harmonic ether.
Commissioned by the remarkable Walter Hussey (who also got Britten's
Rejoice in the Lamb and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms), Berkeley's
Festival Anthem counts as the odd duck in the program. The most elaborately
conceived of all the works here, it wears drama like a badge of honor,
with extreme contrasts of almost military pomp and Mendelssohnian
tenderness. It falls into four large parts: a setting of the sequence
- in English - Jerusalem et Sion filiae ("daughters of Jerusalem and
Zion") and of two metaphysicals: part of George Herbert's "The Flower,"
and Henry Vaughan's "Easter Hymn." Why Berkeley turned out something so
contrary to his feelings of proper worship might be explained by the
"festival" part of the title or perhaps by the fact that he wrote for
Anglicans, rather than for his own church.
For me, however, the a cappella Mass represents the peak of Berkeley's
choral achievement. "Impersonality" be damned, this setting is extremely
personal, even dramatic, although not in a Verdian way. It's another
Missa brevis in all but name (in both works, Berkeley omits the Credo,
and the running time is the same). Like all of Berkeley's music, the
structure is meticulously worked out, with motives in one section showing
up in another and always with some point. But again one finds the drama
in the architecture, rather than in word-painting or in an attempt to
evoke psychology. Berkeley kicks the choral counterpoint up a notch,
compared to most of the other works here. Despite its brevity, the score
evokes the monumentality, space, and coolness of a cathedral. The hell
of it is, it will probably not be used as a mass setting anytime soon,
the Church (at least the Church in the U.S.) preferring for its Kapellmeister
mediocrities like Marty Haug (oddly enough, a Lutheran, I believe).
The Toccata, from the Sixties, represents one of Berkeley's few organ
pieces. It's well-written, but not particularly inspired. It sounds
dutiful rather than necessary and could have used a little vulgarity.
I can call none of this music easy. Robinson and the Choir of St. John's
College give, for the most part, beautiful, committed performances. It
surprised me a bit, because I had previously heard Robinson do ho-hum
performances of Vaughan Williams's sacred choral music. Here, however,
he gives ho-hum the heave-ho. The choral tone and clarity impressed me
most. I normally prefer grownups in my choral sound, but the trebles
here are sweeter and less "woody" than most I've heard. In fact, right
now I think St. John's has it all over King's, chorally speaking. I
do complain that the liner notes are sloppily edited, and the decision
of which texts to print borders on the bizarre. Only some of the text
to Crux fidelis turns up, while the identical text for the Missa brevis
and the Mass appears twice. As the man says, pourquoi? Still, as far
as performance and repertoire goes, a Naxos bargain that yields nothing
to a full-price disc.