L BERKELEY Stabat Mater M BERKELEY Touch Light
The five discs The Marian Consort have so far released focus on music written between the 15th and 17th centuries, so their latest recording of works written between 1947 and 2005 would seem a pretty drastic departure from their usual hunting ground.
But the clue is in their name, and a significant theme running through their repertory is music devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And you do not get much more Mary-centred than the Stabat mater. As David Wordsworth writes in his excellent booklet-notes for the Delphian disc, this ‘is without doubt one of Berkeley’s finest works’. Its scoring for a dozen instruments (string quartet, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and percussion) and six solo voices has no doubt led to its total neglect by the record industry.
The Marian Consort seem to be the first to have made a commercial recording of Berkeley’s Stabat mater but a performance was broadcast by the BBC on March 1, 1965. That recording has been issued as part of Lyrita’s series resurrecting recordings taken by Richard Itter from radio broadcasts between 1952 and 1996. There is a tremendous intensity about this 1965 performance, conducted by Norman Del Mar, but despite a fine line-up of soloists and some fervent playing from members of the ECO, it does not always grasp the essential intimacy of the work in the way that Wordsworth and his Marian Consort do so effectively.
The Marian Consort’s background in early music pays dividends in their superb precision of pitch, impeccable rhythmic placing and beautiful diction. These are vividly displayed in the haunting Mass for Five Voices, written for Westminster Cathedral, and Judica me, commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival to mark the composer’s 75th birthday. The lush harmonies that open the latter are sumptuously delivered and beautifully recorded here.
The Lyrita disc also includes a 1963 broadcast of the premiere of Berkeley’s cantata Batter my heart, three-person’d God under the composer’s direction, which unfortunately sounds its age, as well as a splendidly atmospheric recording of his mighty – and, for my money, grossly underappreciated – Magnificat, again directed by the composer, with the combined forces of three major London cathedrals. With a lot of help from the all-enveloping St Paul’s acoustic, this has a real sense of awe about it.
While the Lyrita disc is devoted entirely to Lennox Berkeley, the Delphian one includes a short setting for soprano, countertenor and string quartet by his son of his own text (not given with the other texts in the booklet but buried within the booklet-notes). According to Michael Berkeley, Touch Light is a deliberate attempt to evoke the ‘rapturous love duets’ of Monteverdi and Purcell and ‘a homage to these masters of early opera’. The musical language is far removed from the 17th century but the sense of great – almost erotic – rapture is beautifully created by Zoë Brookshaw and Rory McCleery in a performance of shimmering intensity.