The Prom concert on the evening of 3 September included a performance of Michael Berkeley‘s rarely-heard Organ Concerto, performed by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are few British composers who seem to be so centrally connected to the world of music than Michael Berkeley. Son of Lennox, godson of Britten, Berkeley is arguably best known to many through his broadcasting work on television and radio, although as a composer he’s charted an interesting, if at times, quizzical path. The reason i mention the sense of interconnection projected from Berkeley’s cultural persona is because it’s often struck me that his compositional voice doesn’t so much bubble up from within, but appears to be forged from notions, ideas, mannerisms and traits from a plethora of other composers. That’s not intended as a negative criticism at all; on the contrary, in his best music, Berkeley, far from being a ‘stylistic magpie’, comes across as a sort of æsthetic impresario, in the process generating something quite unique irrespective of the apparently disparate nature of its sources.
The Organ Concerto dates from 1987, a period when Berkeley’s harmonic language was moving away from the relative conservatism of his earlier music, introducing more emphatically dissonant material. Unquestionably, there are pieces from this time where the dissonance feels ‘forced’, as though Berkeley were trying to strike a kind of avant-garde pose, but that’s not the case in this piece; if anything, it’s the brief glimpses of tonality that seem at odds with everything else. Berkeley’s inspiration is the lighting of the New Fire, the first great ritual of the late-night Easter Vigil service, where the Paschal candle is lit, symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. You may want to hold onto that idea, because it’s not always terribly apparent in the music, although one might arguably complain more if the piece sounded overtly programmatic.
It falls into two broad sections of roughly the same length, the first of which is dominated by activity. A bell strike cues the opening idea, presented by three distant, intermingling trumpets (which to Berkeley are akin to ‘liquid molten metal’). Over several minutes, the trumpets’ idea proves infectious, passing delicately to various other members of the orchestra (just as one candle lights another in the Vigil service); the woodwinds are the strongest here—except one eventually realises that the organ is already present among them, softly blending with no hint of having started to play. This is characteristic of the organ throughout the piece, which is entirely misnamed; the organ never really come across as a true soloist (at least, not in the concerto sense), and for much of the time doesn’t even seem to be the most significant instrument playing. Rapid figurations dominate the first half of the work, sounding toccata-like when delivered by the organ, but when taken up by the orchestra they hint strongly at the composer Berkeley says he consulted before writing the piece, Witold Lutosławski. Amidst the rapidity, about halfway through this section, there’s a curious fleeting glimpse of something tonal, an idea that’s no sooner grasped than it’s gone, the material moving restlessly on to the first climax, a genuinely exciting episode featuring fortissimo chords on the organ, making their entrance in the wake of a booming bass pedal in the lower strings and brass. For a moment it sounds as though it’s going to become militaristic, but Berkeley diverts the music in a more ill-disciplined direction, an organ solo yielding to an irreverently boistrous response from the brass, culminating in a wild, repeated chord idea.
The second part, begun immediately in the wake of the first’s final flourish, starts in a determinedly different mode. Alone, in unison, the violins switch to high lyricism, the wide interval leaps in their lengthy melody unavoidably bringing Mahler to mind. After a time, the organ returns, first duetting with the harp, then a horn, then assorted woodwinds; the patience Berkeley wields over the material here works very well, resulting in a palpable sense of tension, as though the music were confined or inhibited. As at first, it falls to the trumpets to get things moving; making a stab at a tattoo, the orchestra responds with excitement, leading to another rapid outburst. But this is almost immediately quelled, leading to a truly enigmatic conclusion, begun by very soft upper strings (again, hints of Mahler), whereupon the tonal idea from earlier returns, weirdly incongruous. If before it seemed like a memory, now it acts as a catalyst, prompting a sudden forceful surge from the organ; but this, too, is silenced, dissolving into a weird retrograde rendition of the trumpets’ opening material, now wraithlike and strange, the strings (first meandering, ultimately static) emphasising the decidedly odd atmosphere, snuffed out with another strike from the bell.
It’s a curious piece, no doubt, one that seems to be concerned with making a strong first impression, but actually makes a deeper impact—like much of Berkeley’s music—after some time and reflection.