I first discovered the music of John McCabe in an old plastic
box outside Hughes Second Hand Bookshop in Llandudno - circa
1975. Amongst many vinyl records there was a copy of the EMI
recording of the Chagall Windows. This record was marked
up ‘Not for Sale’ so I have always assumed that it was someone’s
review copy. I remember getting it home and being rather disappointed.
The music seemed oddly dissonant and far removed from Vaughan
Williams’ The Lark Ascending which I had also bought
at the same shop. However a few years later I heard a couple
of McCabe’s organ pieces which I thoroughly enjoyed. When the
Chagall Windows was re-released on CD (review)
I bought a copy – one again second-hand. This time I appreciated
it and began to understand the composer’s musical language.
Over the years I have heard a fair number of works from McCabe’s
pen, and generally I have liked what I have heard. As an aside,
my favourite piece by him is Cloudcatcher
Fells for brass band.
John McCabe has been reasonably well served by the recording
industry. Dutton Epoch has released a couple of excellent CDs
dedicated to his concerted pieces, including two piano concertos
and Dutton Epoch CDLX 7133). Hyperion has offered his Symphony
(Of Time and the River). His major ballet scores Arthur
Pendragon and Edward
II are both currently available. Many more pieces large
and small are in the various catalogues and reward searching
out. Some works will only be located on vinyl by the dedicated
The present CD of chamber works is therefore a major addition
to the repertoire. I have glanced through the composer’s website
discography and believe that only one of these works, Fauvel’s
Rondeaux is currently available elsewhere - Dutton
Epoch CDLX 7125. The present version of this work makes
use of the bass clarinet.
I have never listened to any of these works before, so I guess
that I come to them with a largely innocent ear. I am grateful
to the excellent liner notes by the composer.
I believe that 63 minutes of clarinet tone is a lot for the
average listener to cope with at one sitting, so I suggest taking
these pieces, one at a time. They are presented on the disc
in chronological order: I recommend listening to the works thus.
Movements is an excellent little work that provides
a fine introduction to John McCabe’s ‘early’ chamber music style.
The seven very short 'movements’ were originally composed in
1964 when the composer was about 25 years old. They were dedicated
to the Gabrieli Ensemble. The inspiration for the work came
from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury.
The full sense of this book -I have not read it - is, apparently,
only revealed after finishing it. The progress of the music
is in the form of a palindrome, though to be honest, without
the score I would probably not have noticed. The last three
sections, an allegro agitato, an allegretto and the concluding
lento are palindromes of the first three movements played in
reverse order. The middle section is an adagio and represents
the literal heart of the piece.
McCabe notes that a ‘free variation technique’ is used to create
the ‘melodic’ interest in this work. The composer has avoided
the danger of allowing the constructive elements of Movements
to reduce it to some kind of pedantic exercise. The sound-world
may be fairly and squarely in the serialist style but he never
allows this to spoil the invention and musicality of the piece.
The work was revised in 1966. I am not sure where the 1969 date
in the sleeve-notes comes from.
A few years later, McCabe wrote a Sonata for clarinet, cello
and piano. It was a commission by Brocklehurst-Whiston Amalgamated
for the 1969 Macclesfield Arts Festival. The dedication was
to the Gervase de Peyer, William Pleeth and Peter Wallfisch
trio who gave the first performance. I did wonder why the composer
chose to call the work a Sonata rather than a ‘Trio’, however
he explains that ‘he felt that this approach, intent on treating
the instruments as individuals in a dialogue rather than a single
unit, would be more in keeping with a less traditional, though
equally abstract style.’
This single movement work is divided into five sections. Once
again the middle ‘tristamente’ is the heart of the work. The
opening lento is recalled in the concluding andante. There is
exciting music in both the ‘allegro’ and the ‘vivo’ sections.
I do not believe that a palindrome has been used here – though
the formal working out of this Sonata is certainly well-balanced
and turns upon the central section. John McCabe has suggested
that the inspiration for this work was partly derived from ‘a
sense of loneliness and space conveyed by sections of Stanley
Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This mood is
well-achieved, although offset by some dramatic and often exciting
Fauvel’s Rondeaux is a massively impressive work. It
was conceived for clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) violin and
piano. The work is cast as a ‘gigantic’ rondo with a twist.
In a classical rondo the material is presented as, for example,
ABACADA. A is the main theme and B, C and D are episodes that
are usually in contrast to it. But the main theme is all important.
The twist is that McCabe has provided a dynamic, powerful opening
melody which is repeated as in classical rondo. However, the
episodes here form ‘the substance of the music’ rather than
a commentary on it.
The work is seen as a pendant to McCabe’s great ballet score
Edward II where there appears a group of jugglers,
acrobats, clowns and musicians. They are led by a certain Fauvel.
The present work manages to balance the elements of ‘entertainment
and the gradually darkening world of conspiracy, lust and power
mania’. It achieves this contrast brilliantly. The musical language
is at once approachable and challenging. It is an exciting work
with some moments of unease and discomfort for the listener.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio
and Michigan State University. It was composed during 1995/96.
The latest work on this CD is the Clarinet Quintet: La Donna.
This was commissioned by Linda Merrick and the Kreutzer Quartet
and was first performed at the Royal Northern College of Music
in Manchester on June 15 2011. The quintet does appear to be
a little bit of a pot-pourri of styles. Fundamentally lyrical
and always approachable, this is music that explores a diverse
range of musical devices. From plainsong melody, dance music,
hints (and only hints) of minimalist textures, jazzy interludes
and even ‘pop’ the composer throws idea after idea at the listener.
It is largely uplifting music, however there are some reflective
moments in the score. The conclusion is a riot of sound. It
may not be fair to say that the latest work is best – but I
certainly feel that this is a fine piece of music that will,
I hope, take up its place in the clarinet quintet repertoire.
I cannot fault the playing on this disk. All the soloists and
the chamber ensemble play this music with flair, concentration
and obvious pleasure. I mentioned the excellent liner-notes
by the composer. The sound quality is excellent and consistently
reveals the clarity of the instrumentation.
I enjoyed every work on this CD, although I have to say that
the Quintet and the Fauvel’s Rondeaux impressed me
most. Both works exhibit an impressive understanding of form
– one a ‘traditional’ rondo and the other appearing
to be largely through composed.