Berkeley: Clarinet Concerto; Flighting; Pere du doux repos…

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COMPOSERS: Berkeley
LABELS: ASV
WORKS: Clarinet Concerto; Flighting; Pere du doux repos…
PERFORMER: Emma Johnson (clarinet), Henry Herford (baritone); Northern Sinfonia/Sian Edwards
CATALOGUE NO: CD DCB 1101 DDD
Two short solo pieces and a major orchestral work portray Michael Berkeley, one of our leading composers from the 40-something generation, at the height of his powers. Confident in invention, strong on formal control, his music has grown steadily from the youthful enthusiasms of earlier scores such as Or Shall We Die? to the subtle individuality of this concerto, delivering an impressively cogent argument sustained for a single-movement span of some 20 minutes.

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Influenced by the composer’s recent opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep, tackling the subject of Kipling’s unhappy childhood, the work has a clearly theatrical context. Dry, rattling timpani beat out a sinister opening, like some dark intrusion into a child’s dream. Thereafter, strong contrasts suggest a hidden programme, heightened by Berkeley’s remarkable way of writing for the instrument as if it were almost a speaking voice. Emma Johnson’s playing soars with consummate ease through the highest registers. Throughout, she is mistress of situations, though always through cooperation rather than conflict with conductor Sian Edwards, as the music surges into a deft, nightmare scherzo then returns to the menacing world from which it began.

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The solo clarinet Flighting, from 1985, is an earlier manifestation of Berkeley’s skill at writing for this instrument. Pere du doux repos…, for baritone, is an impeccable gem. Nicholas Williams