On 16 June 1946, the winners of the Daily Express Victory Symphony Competition duly had their Manchester performance at the King’s Hall, Bellevue. In the aftermath of the bombing of the Free Trade Hall in 1942, the Halle Orchestra often made use of this 7,000 seater venue.
Neville Cardus gave a detailed review for the Manchester Guardian (17 June 1946). He began by insisting that ‘both composers achieve many of their best effects by a clean economy of line and colour. There is an astringent quality in the music that springs from a determination to reject material that would be merely decorative.’ However, there is a down side to this process: Cardus feels that ‘sometimes the music flags beneath the burden of a too conscious thought process.’ He believes that this may be result of being ‘lured from their own orbit by the attempt to convey their meditations on some tremendous event or course of events.’ In this case the Allied victory after six years of war.
The reviewer considered that Bernard Stevens and Cedric Thorpe Dave ‘are excellent musicians who would show more originality in works of lighter form than that of the symphony.’ Lack of recordings and performances of these two composers make it difficult to judge whether Cardus is totally correct in his assumption. However, with Thorpe Davie in particular, he is close to the mark (based on a consideration his catalogue and the few works I have heard).
Cardus acknowledged the ‘great freedom of symphonic style’ that is permissible ‘these days’, however he felt that ‘the voice of a more commanding and less scholastic spirit is needed…’ Hearing these works 70 years later, the listener will consider that there is little ‘scholastic’ about this music, but will agree with the reviewer that both works lack ‘power.’ In the ‘Liberation Symphony ‘much of what we associate with a most intelligent kind of modern contrapuntal technique dominates the finale’ – in other words a fugue. Cardus’ preference was for ‘the first part of that movement – ‘a slow and solemn section…[where] thought and feeling are concentrated expressively.’
Looking at each individual work, Cardus felt that Thorpe Davie was ‘rather aggressive in his use of dissonance.’ This would pass largely unnoticed in 2016.
In conclusion Cardus wrote that ‘when both musicians have had time and opportunity for a true expression of mood and outlook and for a buoyancy of style they will probably make rapid advances.’ If anything, history has side-lined both composers, their music being rarely heard and only occasionally recorded.
Other works heard at Belle Vue that evening included Miss Edna Hobson singing a Tchaikovsky aria and the ‘brilliant and powerful’ playing of Kendall Taylor in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Neville Cardus wrote that John Barbirolli conducted the whole concert with his usual splendid skill, vitality and judgement.’
If and when I find a review of the Scottish Orchestra’s performance of the two symphonies in Glasgow, I shall post it here.