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John McCABE (b. 1939)
Ballet Suite No. 1 - Arthur Pendragon (2000) [27:36]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1967) [25:25]
Pilgrim, for Double String Orchestra (1999) [19:06]
John McCabe (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Austin
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 12-14 June 2006. DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7179 [72:34]

There is no denying the life force that courses through the veins and arteries of McCabe's music.

Take the 25 minute suite that McCabe and the conductor Christopher Austin made from McCabe's ballet Arthur Pendragon. It's the first of two full-length ballets on the Arthur legends. Uther and the Tribes is volcanic in its energy, conveying the barbarity of the early Britons. The transparently orchestrated music heaves with a clashing energy that may recall Mathias and even Malcolm Arnold at times. McCabe shows true mastery in the quietly whining wails of the flutes in Igraine and Uther and then follows it with a long Baxian melody of great and grand measure and an urgent refrain that emulates RVW; a remarkable piece of music. In The Tourney we return to the style of the first movement but with a clear Tippett-like creative urgency. In the finale The Lovers - this time the tragic Guinevere and Lancelot - McCabe has written deeply touching melodic music with the cantilena release of the middle movements of Tippett's Triple Concerto and Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Also bearing the Tippett stigmata are the sickle-edged urgent chiming music for harp, piano and a skein of solo strings. The full ballet was premiered in January 2000.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written for the Southport Centenary Festival 1967, up the road from McCabe's native Liverpool. There is a long, quiet, bass-tense and musingly dissonant introductory Largo with confidingly glittering work for the piano. Fairy bell chimes enter towards the movement's end in which the piano and orchestra rise to discordant insistent assertiveness before a fading down into the subdued music of the opening. After a second or so the explosively rippling two minute second movement arrives; no repose here amid echoes of Stravinsky and RVW. The long third movement goes through various transformations from bleakly icy Antarctic Lento to an argumentative and irritable Allegretto redolent of Malcolm Arnold in the Sixth Symphony. We also encounter a jazzy angry Maestoso and a cold reflective realm. The finale has something f the angular celebratory chiming joyousness and jazz of the piano concertos of Malcolm Williamson and the orchestral works of William Mathias.

Pilgrim for double string orchestra joins the great heritage of British works for massed strings. The inspiration lies in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. It started life as a String Sextet premiered in Luton in 1997 but was then reworked in 1998 for a premiere by Christopher Austin and the Brunel Ensemble in 1999. A single very substantial movement, it's a troubled piece with a faintly Bartókian accent. It makes full use of every aspect of the orchestra and in its quick pizzicato at 2:40 seems to recall RVW's Tallis Fantasia. We may also discern the sterner regret inherent in the symphonic string writing of Roy Harris and the euphoria of Tippett in the Double Concerto (5:00). The music and recording make good use of the antiphonal layout. Throughout, as at 8.30, creaking little violin voices claw their way to the top as they do at the very start. The work ends in a warm humming haze with those ecstatic solo voices trilling in finesse.

John McCabe is a powerhouse on the British music scene. New symphonies keep emerging and one (Labyrinth) is due to be premiered in Liverpool later this year (2007).

Dutton have several McCabe discs and we must hope for more. Meantime do not forget DUNELM RECORDS DRD 0148 (Symphony 4 review) DUTTON CDLX 7125 (chamber music played by Fibonacci Sequence review) and CDLX 7133 (Piano Concerto No. 2 and other works). There are also significant recordings on Hyperion and on ClassicO (Concerto for Orchestra).

Rob Barnett


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