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 John McCabe 70th Birthday Concert - Haydn, Weelkes, Tallis, Byrd and John McCabe: The King's Singers (David Hurley – Timothy Wayne–Wright (counter tenors), Paul Phoenix (tenor), Peter Lawson – Christopher Gabbitas (baritones) – Stephen Connolly (bass), the Sacconi Quartet (Ben Hancox and  Hannah Dawson, violins;Robin Ashwell, viola); Cara Berridge,cello)  John McCabe (piano), Cadogan Hall, London, 24.9.2009 (BBr)

Variations in F Minor (1793)
McCabe: The Women by the Sea (2001)
Haydn: String Quartet in D, op.76/5 (1796)
Weelkes: As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill
McCabe: Cartography (2002 – 2006)
Tallis: Te lucis ante terminum I
McCabe: The Lily-White Rose (world première)
Tallis: Te lucis ante terminum II
Byrd: Civitas sancti tui (from Ne irascaris)
McCabe: Scenes in America Deserta (1986)

No matter how long you’ve been listening to a composer’s music -  and I’ve been an avid John McCabe fan since I first heard the Hallé under Maurice Handford give the Hartmann Variations in Bradford in 1967/1968 -  it still comes as a shock when one of them  mysteriously  reaches the milestone of 70 years. That's true of all great musicians but especially for composers, I think: those we enjoy  seem to age in our minds even more slowly than we age ourselves,  because we hear continuing freshness and innovation in their music which somehow signals enduring youth, even when mysteriously mixed with increasing experience and maturity. So here I was, in the gorgeous setting of the Cadogan Hall, to celebrate John McCabe’s 70th birthday. Even seeing McCabe at the piano, beginning the concert with Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, didn’t help in coming to terms with the idea that he could really be 70.

It was fitting though that  this tribute should start with Haydn’s masterpiece – for such it is. A set of variations on two themes, the music moving between major and minor, sometimes displaying light filigree work and often reaching almost Schubertian tragedy of some depth. John McCabe understands Haydn’s keyboard music better than most people. He has recorded the complete keyboard works and has studied and performed them throughout his whole career. He brought this  lifetime of experinece to bear on this interpretation:  full of breadth and wonder, letting the music speak for itself and unfold in it’s own time, this was a masterly performance.

The performance of the Haydn Quartet was a superb achievement too, especially for a group as youthful as the members of the Sacconi Quartet so obviously are. In the first movement, an amiable Allegretto leading into the medium paced allegro, they played with an effortlessness that shaded the transition from one tempo to the other smoothly, ensuring that there should be no jolt as the music changed. The slow movement is one of Haydn’s most deeply felt, and here the players clearly grasped all of the music's profundity. The minuet and trio were delightful, especially the trio which is led by the cello, and realising that the finale, although marked Presto, can lose some of its character if played too quickly, the quartet wisely chose a steadier pace which allowed them to bring out all of the humour and joy in the piece. The Sacconis have been together since 2001 and on the strength of this performance they deserve to go far. Who knows what they might achieve on reaching 70 themselves?

John McCabe’s piano quintet, The Women by the Sea in which the composer joined the Sacconis, 
came between these two masterworks. The inspiration for the piece came from a single moment in the film Sansho Dayu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and having chosen not to read  the programme notes in advance I approached the music blind, so to speak. It is a further tribute to McCabe’s compositional powers that, without knowing anything the work's origins, the three words I wrote in my programme book were, 'longing', 'sorrow' and 'passion'  which together just about sum it up. The Women by the Sea is in a single movement, starting and ending slowly, passing through solo cadenza-like passages for the strings, and incorporating a scherzo-like episode. All of this happens in about 16 minutes,  but here’s an interesting thing: whilst listening to the music I was convinced that it had played for about half an hour, such is the concentrated intensity of the piece. It’s not an easy listen, and it can’t be too easy to play either,  although the difficulty for the players is not necessarily finding the right notes -  important as that is -  but in managing to express the music's many emotions within its compact time-frame. In less assured  hands  it could easily become simply mournful:  tonight it was vibrant, exciting and fully alive.

As concerts go, this was a very well planned programme; chamber music in the first half and vocal music in the second. I hadn’t realised that The King’s Singers have been singing John McCabe’s music for nearly a quarter of a century, starting with Scenes in America Deserta which the group commissioned, giving the first performance in Houston in 1987.  Between the three McCabe pieces, the Singers gave us four Elizabethan works. Especially haunting was Byrd’s 5 part setting of Civitas sancti tui, a text concerned with the fall of Jerusalem.

McCabe’s Cartography,  with words by Jo Shapcott, began as a commission from the BBC and the Kings Singers for the 2002 Proms to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee.  Initially  the composer didn’t set the full text but always had the intention to do so in mind, and he completed the work for another Kings Singers' concert  some four years later.
The poem traces a journey across Hadrian's Wall from the Roman fort of Arbeia in the east to Carlisle in the west, and down Offa's Dyke from north to south. The work reflects on themes of landscape, the life within and upon the landscape and memory. It is described on the score as a "Madrigal for six voices" and is tied together by a Latin refrain, which occurs before each verse and at the end, usually in just two parts and only set fully for the sextet for the closing version.  As with Scenes in America Deserta, this is typical McCabe, except the difference between the works is that similar processes are used to lighter effect here. There’s a scherzo, a slow movement, and so on and the whole makes for a very satisfying  and entertaining quarter hour.

Scenes in America Deserta is a much tougher nut. Based on text from Reyner Banham's book of the same name, this work takes us into the heartland of America. We see arid desert – though not by means of arid music it must be said – a scherzo takes us cycling, there’s the discovery of frescoes whose subject is water, and courtyards with shadows and trees, and finally we’re back to the desert again. The words don't seem especially suitable for a musical setting at first sight, but McCabe is a master of the genre and by using carefully selected syllables simply as sounds, together with the usual vocal techniques, he has produced a work which transcends its 13 minute time scale and seems to hang in the air; suspended in silence and heat to portray the impact of desert landscapes on human beings, especially on the composer himself.

Between these two pieces, we also had the première of a lovely setting of anonymous words - The Lily-White Rose. The utter simplicity of this setting, combined with a text concerning flowers and the garden made for a real winner as a modern madrigal or part song (arts lost to many composers these days). It was very touching, and a tribute to McCabe that he can speak volumes by using the most minimal of musical ideas and getting the most from them. As an encore, the King’s Singers sang a  second performance of The Lily-White Rose and after that there was cake – a very moist fruit cake with sweet icing, which complimented what we had just heard perfectly.

In the introduction to his book Other Entertainment, Ned Rorem said “It is a joy to write enthusiastically about.... (composers whose music you love).” Writing about, and so sharing impressions of this concert, has been a real pleasure.

Bob Briggs

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