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John McCABE (b. 1939)
Piano Music: Variations Op. 22 (1963); Aubade (Study No. 4) (1970); Gaudi (Study No. 3) (1970); Five Bagatelles (1964); Mosaic (Study No. 6) (1980); Haydn Variations (1983)
John McCabe (piano)
Recorded at Bishopsgate Hall, London, March 1998. DDD

John McCabe has been at the forefront of British composer-pianists for at least four decades now. However a glance through his substantial catalogue of works reveals that music for his own instrument forms a comparatively small if regularly recurrent constituent within his prolific output. Whether the music be for piano, orchestral or chamber forces there are certain preoccupations that remain constant throughout his entire oeuvre. These include a fascination with rhythm and an equal interest in the textural and colouristic elements of the music. Of the latter he is an undoubted master. I well recall the first time I heard his Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band. The magical palette he draws from the band was unlike anything I had heard for the medium to that point; his orchestral music is rarely less than absorbing for the same reasons.

This mastery of timbre and sonority is immediately evident upon listening to this disc of piano music played with supreme command by the composer himself. The sheer range of effects he draws from the instrument is a constant fascination throughout all six works. Gong-like resonances that play an important part in Gaudi (Study No. 3). Elsewhere there are cascading peels of bells. The way in which he exploits the full register of the keyboard is striking and imaginative. In terms of influence it struck me perhaps more than ever before that Messiaen has been a crucial figure in McCabe’s development. In rhythmic terms it is Bartók that comes to the fore in the sheer propulsion of some of the dance-like patterns in which McCabe often revels. Ultimately however he is very much his own man and the distinction of his own personal voice is stamped on all of these works.

In 1969 McCabe began work on a series of studies for piano. Each is designed to function as a fully-fledged piece in its own right. The cycle commenced with Capriccio and Sostenuto and was quickly followed by two of the three studies played here, Gaudi and Aubade, both of 1970. After a pause of twenty years there came number six, Mosaic, written in 1980. The cycle is still in progress with McCabe adding a further two studies as recently as 2000 and 2001, Evening Harmonies (Hommage à Dukas) and Scrunch (Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti). As the sub-title implies Gaudi takes its inspiration from the architecture of its Spanish creator whose buildings are "a source of continual fascination" to the composer. The music proceeds with no pulse in the conventional sense but rather constructed around five basic tempi. Typically McCabe is always careful to ensure that there is an audible way through the work for the listener. The sound world is once again captivatingly colourful, as it also is in Aubade albeit this time set within a very different context. Here the structure is simpler, the time passage briefer. The preoccupation with colour results in a magical evocation of the moments before dawn. This is probably the closest McCabe comes to Messiaen in any of these works and the stillness of the closing bars, those few minutes before the dawn breaks, is beautifully captured. Mosaic was inspired by the mosaics seen by the composer in the mosques of Damascus during a concert tour. In terms of scale it is on a par with Gaudi. The work is essentially a set of variations developing from an eleven-note row that McCabe gradually expands and embellishes. It is once again a work of considerable technical demands. Overall the result is not quite as striking as Gaudi but rewarding nonetheless.

The use of variation form has always been prevalent in McCabe’s music. Here we are given two contrasting examples of his approach to the method. The simply titled Variations of 1963, only his second acknowledged work for the instrument, comprises eighteen variations on the initial eight bar theme. In all these span just over nine and a half minutes. The theme itself uses a tritone (C-F#) as its "spring-board". There is a lento chordal sequence and an oscillating motif that returns regularly as a kind of anchor point. Whether McCabe is in reflective mood or otherwise (there are some impressively propulsive rhythmic variations in the piece) the music never loses its thematic clarity, giving the work a satisfying structural cogency. Written some twenty years later in 1983, the Haydn Variations (it is worth noting that the composer had abandoned the use of opus numbers by this time) is an altogether more ambitious exploration of the form. Dauntingly so in fact at less than three minutes under half an hour in performance. Here, the composer chooses not to put his cards on the table until late in the work. It is not until comfortably past the half-way point that he introduces the theme, even then discreetly allowing it to emerge from the previous variation (the theme is taken from Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in G minor although one could easily be forgiven for failing to identify it). McCabe chooses not to number the variations although Guy Rickards informs us in his admirably comprehensive and informative booklet notes that there are nearly three dozen. Over a span of nearly half an hour this allows McCabe to create a web of considerable complexity, where variations are often inter-related and form sub-groups within the broader structural organisation. What emerges is a tour de force of virtuosity and stamina, bearing all of McCabe’s fingerprints in a work that is both a magnificent achievement and the composer’s magnum opus for his own instrument.

By comparison, the Five Bagatelles of 1964 is in many ways the odd work out here. In effect, these are five highly contrasting miniatures (the first and fourth, Capriccio and Toccata are barely more than half a minute long); models of brevity and concision. There is a feeling of Bartók in the rhythmic play of the arresting opening Capriccio and once again in the more astringent and short-tempered Toccata. These are thrown into sharp relief by the song-like Aria and the sparser Elegia that separate them. The closing Notturno achieves a captivating feeling of stillness through its surface simplicity.

The solidity of the composer’s own technique at the keyboard is abundantly clear throughout this recording. McCabe is never less than authoritative and totally convincing, demonstrating dynamic power, tremendous rhythmic drive (often essential to the music) and impressive clarity of articulation. It is very much to the credit of the British Music Society that they have been able to commit to disc what are undoubtedly definitive performances of music by their President. If I have a criticism it is that the recorded sound is a little close for my liking and as a result tends to the harsh, but don’t let that put you off. This is an important recording that is recommended with all possible enthusiasm.

Christopher Thomas


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