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Tantara Records

Late Conversations
Robert CUNDICK (b. 1926) Sonata for Violoncello and Piano
David SARGENT Conversations
Michael HICKS Induction Coil
Reid NIBLEY Sonata for Cello and Piano
Drinkall Baker Duo ((Roger Drinkall, cello; Dian Baker, cello) No details of recording dates or venues 1996 TANTARA TCD-039696B5 [51.01]


Why these ‘conversations’, between cello and piano, should be ‘late’ I’m not sure, but the disc is definitely worth listening to as it has much to say. All the artists, composers and performers are associated with Brigham Young University, Idaho. According to its website, the university’s honor code: ‘emphasizes being honest, living a chaste and virtuous life, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, using clean language and following other values encompassed in the doctrines of the Church.’ (http://home.byu.edu/webapp/home/index, accessed May 2004)

Of course it’s personal taste but that’s not my sort of code. If its professor of cello (Drinkall) and its ‘head of the accompanying area’ (Baker) were obliged to play music that fulfils the code then I suspect this may have been a dull disc. As it is, only the opening work disappoints.

The conservatism inherent in the code is evident in Cundick’s sonata that could have been written a hundred years ago. There are echoes of French Impressionism, particularly in the Arabian sounding theme that starts the piece. It sounds good and that should be sufficient excuse for its existence. However, I can’t rid myself of the thought that composing in earlier idioms is worthless unless they are revisited with a modern eye; such as Stravinsky’s neo-classicism.

It could be age. As I grapple with the fact that I must now be middle-aged, I find myself concerned that my time’s running out despite the fact that there’s so much music, and so many performances, that I want to listen to. In my more neurotic moments I’ve considered playing two pieces simultaneously to pack in as much as possible (I shall seek treatment). However, as we are blessed with having more music at our personal disposal than ever before, we should choose our listening carefully. There’s too much good stuff to hear without wasting time. Hence, if I wish to hear early 20th century cello-piano music in the European tradition then I’ll be reaching for favoured and new performances of Debussy, Ravel and others. I shan’t be reaching for Cundick because he’s not as good as they and that’s not a criticism. If there is a limited repertory for instruments then that in itself is justification for writing music in ‘old’ idioms but that’s not the case for this combination.

Happily, the other three composers are aware of what happened after World War I and their music is much more invigorating. Sargent’s music could be a score for an avant-garde animation, such as Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony. Each movement is a different type of conversation; the lively ones are too abrasive to be the stuff of ‘late conversations’, particularly those I suspect that are supposed to take place at Brigham Young.

Hicks’ Induction Coil offers a great variety of sound, stretching both instruments to their limits. I particularly liked the moment when both cellist and pianist are directed to strum. Steven Johnson’s notes are excellent and he quotes the composer: [Hicks] title, then, “connotes (a) a coiled coupling of two circuits in which interruptions in the direct current of one circuit produce a high-potential alternating current in the other and (b) a kind of hypnotic induction carried out on a cobra.”

Well, if it is possible to compose the above then Hicks has done it.

Nibley claims his sonata is designed for easy listening in a ‘modern-romantic, eclectic, tonal and mildly dissonant’ style. Whilst it’s certainly approachable, the ‘easy’ tag is slightly misleading particularly if you’re listening to it late at night. The last movement is especially good and shows off the marvellous virtuoso playing of both Drinkall and Baker; the recording’s good too.

Of course it could be that all these composers are writing music in the light of the ‘honor code’ and to be abstemious might be far more interesting than it seems to me.

Nick Lacey


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