BERKELEY Clarion Call FERGUSON Octet WOOD Septet
This enterprising programme succeeds through the strength of its contrasts. The opening, bright astringency of Michael Berkeley’s Clarion Call and Gallop (2013) put me in mind of Wild Bells, which concludes another fine and recent Resonus album devoted to the organ works of Berkeley father and son. Insistence is a lasting quality of Berkeley’s music – you can’t take it or leave it – and you find it here in the nagging memorability of the opening call as well as the subtly redirected energy of the gallop.
That insistence is the one note that strikes me as slightly false in the final Tarantella of the marvellous Octet (1933) by Howard Ferguson, which is music of ready appeal and slow satisfaction, though it would be a mistake to call it Brahmsian, any more than it’s Tchaikovskian for doing something with the famous horn tune of the Fifth Symphony: hardly more than one listening should convince you of Ferguson’s high craft as he works within Schubert’s Octet texture, as should the vibrancy of the Berkeley Ensemble’s performance even compared with Dennis Brain and friends in the work’s first recording.
Bassoonist Andrew Watson takes centre stage in Blue Medusa (2002), which John Casken rearranged from bassoon and piano to octet, thereby drawing out the sinuous lines of the solo and setting them loose within a dark and threatening swell.
Stravinsky’s Septet, organised along Schoenbergian lines of counterpoint, would have pulled together the threads of the programme. Instead we have Charles Wood’s Septet, stringing out hearts-of-oak melodies with jolly-jack-tar rhythms that suggest to me a composer at the age of 23 understandably still searching for something to say and a personal way of saying it – which he came to find in his justly more famous church music. Still, this premiere recording satisfies a plea from a Gramophone reader, 86 years after the event: somewhere out there, I hope he’s pleased.