Berkeley’s fondness for Chopin, and indeed of piano writing, is evident in his considerable output of music for that instrument (including single and double concerti). Of this repertoire, the Six Preludes tend to receive rather more airings than the rest – though works like the Sonata and the four-handed Sonatina crop up fairly regularly. The Preludes were written in 1945 for Colin Horsley who gave the first performance and has since recorded them. Their popularity lies first and foremost amongst musicians who, doubtless, appreciate their suitability and ‘feeling’ for the piano. But to the general public they also represent easily digestible melody without stepping down to do so. Number 1 starts with a semi-quaver figure that wrestles between major and minor; the entrance of the left hand relegates this to the role of accompaniment with a legally intoned melody in the right. The two parts are later reversed and a second subject appears, but, after various angles of conversation have been attempted, no solution emerges, and an unhappy and slightly awkward flat of truce is hoisted by way of a six note arpeggio – still undecided between major and minor.
The Second Prelude is a sadly graceful andante, double theme. Having made their individual appearances, both themes run together in the second half and then wistfully disappear by means of a subtle harmonic twist in the third bar from the end. Somerset Maugham, in his short stories, was particularly fond of suddenly throwing his whole structure into a completely different light in the very last paragraph. Though this may seem a rather far removed analogy, I am always reminded of it when listening not only to Berkeley but also Poulenc – both of whom delight in this trick in harmonic terms. As a contrast, the next movement presents ample opportunity to show off technique: a brilliantly styled allegro with semi-quavers tripping and cascading ceaselessly, pervading the atmosphere with an air of jovial ease. Prelude Number 4 is another, primarily melodic, andante which, having first stated the main subject, uses the left hand to cross over and form a descant to the reiteration of the opening. After the middle section has firmly established a contrasting key, the melody reappears in a different arrangement that leads straight into the coda.
The penultimate piece is a jolly allegro that combines, and then exploits, three different rhythmical phrases in 7 / 8; this is recapitulated after a jerky jazz-like middle section. Typically Berkeley uses an unobstreperous andante to round the work off; these quiet, modest finales are a predominant idiosyncrasy of this period and underline the composer’s taste for the subtle rather than the sensational. Indeed, Number 6 has its elegant tune accompanied by shifting harmonies that have just a hint of French succulence, as always, just enough to whet the appetite – never enough to fill the mouth.