John McCabe - Farewell recital - Presteigne Festival, August 2010
Franz SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823) [24:19]
Emily HOWARD Sky and Water (2005) (first recording) [6:30]
John CASKEN The Haunting Bough (1999) (first recording) [4:51]
Maurice RAVEL Valses nobles et sentimentales (pub. 1911) [14:10]
John MCCABE Tenebrae (1992-93) [19:27]
Frank BRIDGE Heart's Ease (Three Lyrics, No. 1) (1921) [1:52]
John McCabe (piano)
rec. St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, Powys, 29 August 2010
Where to begin in giving some inevitably deficient account of John McCabe’s achievement and life to date? This composer, pianist and author was born in Liverpool and studied at Manchester and Munich. His teachers included Hindemith pupil, Harald Genzmer, Humphrey Procter-Gregg and Thomas Pitfield. McCabe’s catalogue is impressive in content and volume. In the days of LP he recorded the complete set of Haydn’s 54 sonatas as well as the variations, other small-scale pieces and the Seven Last Words of the Redeemer on the Cross. All this was across five boxes released on Decca LPs between 1975 and 1977. They formed a mete counterpart to the same label’s contemporaneous Haydn symphony (Dorati) and quartet (Aeolian) cycles. He also recorded British music including Bax, Rawsthorne and Howells as well as Hindemith, Satie and Nielsen. Many of a certain age, will recall a mid-price Decca LP (Pastorale SDD444) of English piano solos. This together with his recordings of other English pieces was reissued by the British Music Society in 2009. A Pye Golden Guinea LP of his First Symphony Elegy made some impact but it was a couple of EMI LPs in the early-mid 1970s that really caught the attention with ASD3096 (Chagall Windows) and ASD2904 (Notturni ed Alba). The CD era has seen good days for his music and an expanding niche in the catalogue. One of my regrets is that he never recorded Bax’s phenomenal Winter Legends of which he remains the ideal exponent. Tapes of his BBC radio broadcasts of the piece in 1978 (Leppard) and 1981 (Handley) are some consolation.
His last public piano recital was given on 29 August 2010 at the Presteigne Festival on the Welsh borders. This disc preserves that event elidng only the Haydn G minor Sonata, Hob. XV and Robert Saxton’s Chacony, both of which he has already recorded. The Schubert Sonata’s dignity-emphasised grandeur emerges sharply defined alongside its still-centred calm and dynamic fairy-flight. Emily Howard is a Liverpudlian who has had her orchestral work Magnetite commissioned by the RLPO and Vassily Petrenko. Her opera Zatopek is a London 2012 commission and will be performed in Liverpool where for years she played with the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra. Her Sky and Water was inspired by an M.C. Escher drawing in which birds morph into fishes. It tumbles with a starry, sometimes dissonant profusion of glinting and glimmering writing. It on occasion parallels that of the darker Hardy settings of Gerald Finzi and brings them close to the orbit of the piano writing of Urmis Sisask. It end in an enigmatically twinkling glow. It is very impressive in the hands of the dedicatee, John McCabe. The darkly and dramatically affirmative Haunting Bough is by John Casken who was born in Barnsley. His works have been recorded by NMC and the Violin Concerto played by Dmitri Sitkovetsy and Daniel Hope. His Cello Concerto was taken up by Heinrich Schiff. Ravel’s Valse Nobles and sentimentales is a McCabe favourite. The music is projected in a strongly muscled and thoughtful manner. In his usefully full liner-notes McCabe reminds us that these dances link affectionately with Schubert’s waltzes. He also mentions Chabrier’s Valses Romantiques. More than once I was also reminded of La Valse. In trs 9 and 11 Barber’s devil-may-care Souvenirs manner is touched upon. McCabe’s Tenebrae is in a single movement of approaching 20 minutes duration. It was written with a dedication to Barry Douglas but is the result of numerous influences including the deaths of Charles Groves, William Mathias and Stephen Oliver. In the context of this work McCabe mentions his longstanding fascination with Liszt’s La lugubre Gondole. It is an extended reflective piece trawling dark realms in liquid yet intense articulation. It’s an impressive and very personal piece with an oily menacing sheen and Gothic virtuosity. Here is a composer who demands your attention and over a long span. There’s a bell-haunted poetic soother to end the disc. This comes in the shape of Frank Bridge’s Heart’s ease which is in the same mood path as his Pastorale collection of the 1970s. It’s most magically done by McCabe whose readings evince long preparation and sustained reflection.

Rob Barnett
Magical … McCabe’s readings evince long preparation and sustained reflection.