Complete music for solo piano

Douglas Stevens Piano

2 CDs
Hoxa 1806-18
Full Price

The Review

IListening to this complete survey of Berkeley’s piano music, I am struck by how much more French it sounds than English; hardly surprising, given that he studied in Paris with Boulanger and that one of his strongest friendships was with Francis Poulenc. He could be part of that group that also included Françaix and Dutilleux. He was a staunch Catholic too and so the cross-channel identity ran deep. Berkeley composed at the piano, indeed one day in about 1980 he allowed me to sit with him in his house in Warwick Avenue, Maida Vale, while he did so. He was no virtuoso public performer, though, and his music reflects his essentially private and domestic nature.

Although he wrote four operas and three symphonies, he struggled with long grand structures and big orchestral textures so this collection is probably as close to his preferred metier as any of his music. Only the substantial Sonata from 1945 has any movements longer that six minutes and most are much shorter. Everything is concise, everything intricately thought out. As a composer he was a watch maker, not an architect.

The earliest piece is a March from 1924, when he was 21, the latest a Mazurka from 1982. The style over those six decades did not change very much; always pensive, elegant and civilised. Berkeley lived through tumultuous times but he saw no need to thrash that out in his music. There is an edge to his amiability, though. He comes nearest to angularity and anything fierce in the Four Studies from 1972.

Douglas Stevens has studied this music in depth and he gives performances that reflect his dedication. The trouble with relatively unknown piano music is that it might be preferable to have a recording made with a better piano, in a different acoustic and with a pianist who makes the music sing more but that will not happen in a hurry. Stevens’ playing suffices and I am very glad to have this collection but I would love to hear Berkeley tackled by a pianist of the calibre of Pascal Rogé or Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.