Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

John McCABE (b. 1939)
Salamander (1994)
Cloudcatcher Fells (1985)
Desert II: Horizon (1985)
Images (1967)
Northern Lights (1992)
Britannia Building Society Band/Howard Snell
Recorded at Peel Hall, Salford, December, 1994 DDD
DOYEN DOY CD 030 [69:57]


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With half a dozen works spanning a period of over thirty years John McCabe has made a major contribution to the modern brass band repertory. Although the band world has in latter years at least, embraced him, it was with a wave of furore that his name first burst onto the band scene in the early 1980s when Images, a work written as long ago as 1967, was selected as a test piece for the area qualifying contests of the National Brass Band Championships. Even at the time of its composition (the piece was written at the request of horn player Ifor James who was then conductor of Besses o' th' Barn Band) McCabe thought the piece relatively conservative, yet the reactionary attitude of the band world at large was such that Images was berated as unnecessarily modern, tuneless and ultimately unmusical.

In reality nothing could be further from the truth for whilst McCabe freely uses dissonance where it benefits the music to do so, as with all his work, it rarely strays too far from a tonal centre. Sadly it would appear that little has changed over the years as this year Judith Bingham's Prague, selected as the test piece for the same round of area contests, has come in for a similar pounding despite it being no more "modern" in language than Images, a piece that is now over thirty five years old.

In some ways the most extraordinary thing about Images is the composer's early grasp of colour, texture and the light and shade that can be created with an ensemble of twenty-five brass instruments. The same remarkable ear evident in the later works is also there in Images, strongly suggesting the presence of a natural affinity between the composer and the brass band. The work was originally to be called 'Reflections', McCabe changing his mind during the process of composition as various images passed through his mind, albeit on this occasion images that he keeps to himself. The result is a work of kaleidoscopic variety. Huge granite-like sounds can give way to coruscating, dovetailed cornet passages or delicate solos set against fascinating colours of muted instruments interwoven with unmuted. Certain characteristics, both rhythmic and harmonic, crop up both here and again in later works but McCabe's control is such that the music is never repetitive. Instead there is always a sense of organic growth, a feeling that the composer thinks instinctively in a symphonic manner.

The work that proved to have a profound, even dramatic effect on the band movement's attitude to McCabe was Cloudcatcher Fells of 1985. Written as the test piece for the finals of the National Brass Band Championships of that year the work is an evocation of the area surrounding Patterdale in the Lake District, a place of particular personal significance to the composer. There is little doubt in my mind that Cloudcatcher is a masterpiece of the medium. Essentially a set of variations on the eight chords heard through the mysterious mist-shrouded opening, but conceived with an organic sense of thematic structure, each variation takes in the sights of one of the composer's favourite walks, amongst them Great Gable, Haystacks, Striding Edge and finally the dramatic Helvellyn where the initial chords return in magisterial splendour. At the heart of the work is an astonishingly beautiful slow variation, Angle Tarn, in which McCabe uses his skill in sound colouring to wonderful effect. Just listen to the delicacy of the cornet writing and sound of the basses in the concluding bars of this variation as clouds gather on the horizon. The same quality of scoring can be heard in Images, but in Cloudcatcher McCabe has honed it still further, resulting in a work of compelling drama and beauty. Whilst Britannia's is not the only fine performance of the work that has been committed to disc (I still retain a strong affection for the first recording that appeared by the Black Dyke Mills Band on Chandos in the wake of their contest-winning performance) the quality of their playing here is evident in abundance.

Although it appeared in the same year as Cloudcatcher Fells, Desert II: Horizon is perhaps the odd one out amongst these works in that it is the only piece not to have been originally conceived for brass band. Its origins lie in a commission for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in 1981. It is one of a number of works of the same period, for differing combinations of instruments, concerned with images of deserts that the composer had encountered during his tours abroad as a concert pianist. Typically evocative, the piece magically conjures up a shimmering heat-scorched landscape of imagery, using every section of the band to telling effect and confirming that McCabe thought the transformation from ten-piece brass ensemble to full brass band through with great care.

Salamander, perhaps surprisingly given its title, was written at the request of English Heritage to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England. Subsequently it was used as the test piece for the British Open in 1994. Celebratory in tone, the work is once again conceived organically, this time in the form of a passacaglia the theme of which, the composer explains, is closely related to the opening of Brahms's Fourth Symphony, a particular favourite of his. A haunting central lento featuring prominent solo contributions from several instruments finely balances the blazing extrovert sounds of the opening and conclusion. The title was inspired by the salamander's mythical ability to live in fire, appropriate given that the piece was given its first performance in the open air at Kenwood Lakeside to an accompaniment of fireworks.

The title of Northern Lights does not relate to the Aurora Borealis as one might expect, but to McCabe's admiration for the "northern lights" of Harry Mortimer and the two northern based bands for whom it was written. Like Salamander the tone is predominantly extrovert, the structure that of a prelude and fugue. McCabe wrote the fugue whilst a student at Manchester University around 1960 (he is a northerner himself born in Liverpool) and here at last found an opportunity to put it to good use, albeit slightly modified. Listen out for the slow central section here, a progression of slow moving chords over which McCabe floats a spine tingling, atmospheric soprano cornet line. Despite the composer's assertion that the piece has nothing to do with the northern lights of the Arctic I could not help but feel them drift into my mind whilst listening.

As a body of work these five pieces make for impressive listening and without question confirm John McCabe's status as one of the most important contributors to the brass band repertoire in recent years. This is the only recording that draws the majority of his work for the medium together although given that the disc has been around for some years now it omits his most recent work for band, The Maunsell Forts, heard at the British Open Championships in September 2002. I would add that the technical virtuosity and skill of the players of the Britannia Building Society Band under Howard Snell's direction is quite outstanding, adding up to a disc that I would recommend with all possible enthusiasm to anyone with an interest in British music.

Christopher Thomas.

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