Tranchell’s Decalogue, Epps, The Cambridge Review, 3rd March 1956

Tags: Review

In spite of many minor blemishes, the concert given in St John’s College Chapel by the C.U.M.S. chorus, brass and percussion was highly enjoyable. Not all the works were equally successful in performance, and not all the choral works seemed suitable for such a large choir. The interest of the music itself, however, ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and the opportunity to hear it at all, outweighed these considerations

Of the works that opened the programme Thou Mighty God by Dowland, though expressive, could have been more so, O Praise the Lord by Tomkins, though complex, might have been clearer, and the Purcell March for brass and timpani might have less perfunctory and more dramatic. The Canzona which followed went so quickly that the trumpets only had time to give an undignified peck at each note as it raced off to join the others in the roof. The difficulties of Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei were admirably surmounted, but the determination of the choir on several occasions put the organ out of tune.

The first performance of Peter Tranchell’s Decalogue for brass, percussion and organ confirmed my distaste for the Ten Commandments. No doubt the Israelites would have been just as awed by this music as by Moses, but they might have preferred his mute inglorious tablets to these vibrant variations. The concise programme note was an excellent musical Baedeker but got some of the facts wrong; ‘the plain octave” cited was definitely not an octave even by Old Testament Temperament. Subtleties of orchestration (such as a coin spun on a drum-head) were most effective from where I was, but other people told me they felt cheated by not being able to hear them. Early in the work the music disintegrated and achieved the disjointedness of musique concrète without the concomitant embarrassment of a tape recorder, though later the music did join up again. At least the performers deserve our congratulations for tackling this difficult work and bringing it off so well.

Edward Dent’s motets started with the lower parts so indistinct that one was unable to make harmonic sense of the first one at all until O spare me a little, a very touching section. The second motet, in spite of some vocally ungrateful phrases, was pleasingly pastoral. O praise God, vigorously and, at times, vulgarly sung, was most agreeable.

Robin Orr’s beautiful anthem They that put their trust in the Lord was sensitively rendered, and was one of the highlights of the evening. Vaughan Williams’s O clap your hands followed and was almost as exciting as one would have wished and of course very effective. In Matthew Locke’s brass music the C.U.M.S. instrumentalists redeemed themselves and, with the exception of a few snorts, gave an excellent performance.

Bach’s motet Be not afraid proved a rather pedestrian end to the concert. A smaller, virtuoso choir is surely needed to perform these motets adequately; pace and precision are so necessary. I should also have preferred a fast ending to the extended allargando; this seems to be what the music demands. Ironically this was the only moment in the work when the choir was at its best.

The general standard of the concert was most creditable, and the C.U.M.S. and Allen Percival deserve high praise for this venture.

David Epps