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C.U. Composers’ Club, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 7th May 1952

A few weeks ago, new works of some seven contemporary composers were performed in the Music School. The C.U. Composers’ Club was holding its Open Concert. Let me record my impressions.

First came a Sonata for Two Pianos by Nigel Glendinning, not a member of the Music Faculty, by the way, but perhaps the most cogent and exuberant, though not the most mature composer of the evening. The medium of two pianos is a treacherous one. The temptation is to take the opportunity offered and hang on to it. For, after all, if one writes in a simple scanty style, one might almost dispense with one of the pianos. But the noise, the opacity given by two individual sustaining pedals, the physical percussiveness of four hands, however gentle, and the ease with which two players separated by 10 feet of reverberation can lose each other’s place or tempo when concentrating on their own, all conspire against the eventual effect of the music.

I was a little overpowered. The fault, I think, was the composer’s. But his invention of patterns and his modernistic-cum-romantic harmony consoled me for the lack of contrasts and for the absence of anything outstanding in the way of a melody.

Songs followed by Kenneth Elliot, Ian Kemp and Robin Watt. With the first group “Over the hills and far away” (an arrangement) and “Song at sunrise” I have no quarrel: in every way simple and unpretentious. Ian Kemp’s “A ship, an isle, a sickle moon” was set in the most curious way. One does not ask for anything so naive as a direct attempt in music to describe an object mentioned, but somehow one does look for a catching of the mood of the words. Ian Kemp’s vocal line was for the most part almost deliberately off-hand and contradictory; meanwhile the piano accompaniment was a marvel of delicate feeling and insight.

The opposite applied to Robin Watt’s two songs, “Under the greenwood tree” and “Blow, blow thou winter wind.” In spite of the ubiquity of these words with music of one sort or another, the composer had achieved a slightly fantastic but somehow natural, fresh and interesting vocal line, against which the accompaniment seemed at times to jar by making too much effort to strike a recherché note.

I am diffident of expatiating on Albert Marshall’s Two Songs (from his Cantata of the Hours), which came next, since the string quartet to a great extent obliterated the voices of the chorus of kind young ladies who obliged by singing, while the teeth of the same young ladies obliterated their words. However, the composer whilst producing music of much suavity, charm, and perhaps introspection, somehow failed to convey the real savour of those qualities, by serving them undiluted. It may be that the omitted portions of the cantata would have provided just the highlights of contrast required. I hate to harp on this matter of contrasts, but one does well to remember that Elijah’s “still small voice” was effective because there had been wind, earthquake and fire to offset it.

Raymond Warren’s Suite from Film Music to Hadrian’s Wall, for flute, cor anglais, dulcitone and string trio, an accomplished piece, had a very much better chance than it got as an accompaniment to the film. Forgetting the Hadrian’s Wall aspect—a subject, which, though tense with an undercurrent of martial and stirring memories, was treated by the film (and consequently by the music for it) with nothing more than a pastoral melancholy—the music as music was delicious. There were so many felicitous sonorities—especially those enhanced by the dulcitone. And the composer’s skill in judging when to call a halt was such that one did not mind the pretty nostalgia of the first movement being maintained in the other two.

The concert finished with Three Miniatures for two pianos by Gordon Lawson, a warm work consisting of Introduction, Nocturne and Jig. The Jig was notable for its amusing syncopations, and the two-piano texture was well-controlled throughout.

It is perhaps rash to utter opinions from a single hearing, especially when the performance may be somewhat under-rehearsed, but the evening’s programme was most interesting and diverting, and I am sure we have not heard the last of the matter.

Peter Tranchell