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Fierce Tears I and Fierce Tears II for Oboe and Piano.

Oxford University Press has recently published four works for various instrumental ensembles by the British composer Michael Berkeley that explore the emotions of pain and anger created by death. Born in London in 1948 and educated at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School and the Royal Academy of Music, Berkeley also studied with his father Lennox Berkeley and Richard Rodney Bennett. He served as a BBC Radio 3 announcer and as the programme presenter for BBC2 TV from 1974 to 1979. From 1987 to 1988 he was the composer-in-residence at the London College of Music, and he has been the artistic director for the Cheltenham International Festival of Music since 1995.

Two pieces for oboe and piano, Fierce Tears I and Fierce Tears II, are published together as a set. Berkeley took the title Fierce Tears from the final stanza of Dylan Thomas's famous poem "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," in which the poet evokes the frustration and sorrow he felt upon his father's death:

And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Fierce Tears I was composed in 1983 in memory of the oboist Janet Craxton, and the work was first performed by one of her pupils, Nicholas Daniel, with pianist Julius Drake. This piece develops a passage from the final movement of Berkeley's 1979 oboe concerto (subtitled Elegy In Memoriam Benjamin Britten) premiered by Craxton shortly before her death. Fierce Tears II, commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1990 in memory of the composer's father, develops the same material from the oboe concerto. Both pieces are dramatic in nature and rhapsodic in form, being in turn wistfully lyrical and rhythmically bold. Berkeley's harmonic language is a deft mixture of tonal and atonal materials, which, in conjunction with his rhythmic drive, creates a musical syntax that is both compelling and immediately communicative. Although Fierce Tears I and II are technically challenging, they make minimal use of contemporary techniques and notation.

Berkeley completed Keening in 1987, and the piece received its premiere in London the following year by saxophonist John Harle (who commissioned the work) and pianist John Lenehan. The title comes from the Irish word caoin, which means to wail bitterly, to utter the keen for the dead. Keening continues to develop the concerns Berkeley expressed in Fierce Tears I and II in a similarly dramatic and rhapsodic style. It is a more technically demanding piece for both soloist and accompanist, however, and, in further contrast with the oboe pieces, aggressive rhythmic activity takes precedence over sustained lyricism throughout most of Keening. Toward the end of the piece, the music begins to divide in texture, with the saxophone soloist introducing short, lyrical passages marked p and pp while the piano continues to break in with the vigorous rhythmic activity from the earlier part of the work. Gradually, the saxophone's passages become more extended, almost convincing the piano to join in its more reflective mood. It is as if grief, once expressed and its energy dissipated, must be followed by a measure of pensive acceptance, if not peace.

Coronach for string orchestra is another composition belonging to this group of works exploring what Berkeley describes as "the complex emotions of grief" (accompanying note to score). This work was commissioned for young string players by the 1988 Presteigne Festival and was premiered in September of that year. A coronach is a Scottish highland lament, and appropriately this work begins slowly, in two layers with the lower strings playing percussive, biting chords. marked ff, while the violins initially enter p, intoning a mournful melodic fragment. Berkeley continues this textural and dynamic contrast throughout the entire piece, at times between different layers and at other times between different sections of the music. Coronach is interesting and engaging in its musical gestures and forward propulsion; it would work well for a professional or college string orchestra. But a string orchestra of younger players would encounter many difficulties in playing this piece. Many of the running passages in the lower strings, for example, involve difficult patterns in tenor clef (including the double basses), and toward the middle of the piece there are numerous subdivided quintuplets - not an easy task for many younger players. It is not surprising that members of the English String Orchestra assisted the youth orchestra at the premiere of Coronach.

Fierce Tears and Keening have been handsomely printed in a professional typeface. Coronach, unfortunately, is only a fair reproduction of the composer's manuscript score, rendering it much less readable. Still, the publication of all four of Berkeley's compositions centered around grief and mourning, provides a welcome addition to this talented composer's catalogue of available works.

JEREMY BECK University of Northern Iowa
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Author:Beck, Jeremy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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