My introduction to John McCabe’s music was found in an old cardboard box outside Hughes second-hand bookshop in Llandudno around 1975 –the EMI recording of the Chagall Windows coupled with the Variations on a theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (ASD3096). I remember that I was not impressed by either work, although time has changed my mind about the Chagall Windows. It is a masterpiece. Around the same time, I discovered that McCabe was also a brilliant pianist. I acquired one of the LP boxed sets (vinyl) of his recordings of the Haydn Piano Sonatas. In 1995, I invested in the 12CD Decca reissue of all the sonatas and other piano works: I have never found the need for any other version of this great music.
Over the years I have come to appreciate McCabe’s music, especially the orchestral and brass band pieces. Yet for some reason, his original piano works have passed me by. I never got round to buying the BMS CD (British Music Society BMS424CD) which appeared around 2004. This was reviewed on MusicWeb International by Christopher Thomas and a few years later by Bob Briggs (see also). It is this disc that Naxos has now re-issued.
John Healy in the Newcastle-based newspaper The Journal (19 February 1964) noted that the Variations, op.22 are ‘not cast in the usual variation form.’ He was concerned that there appeared to be ‘no recognisable theme announced at the outset – only a series of chords and twiddlings at the extremity of the keyboard.’ Yet the reviewer conceded that there was ‘much effective writing and the three well contrasted sections seemed to present a good deal of thoughtful invention.’
All this seems to fit my first impression that the opening of this piece is a bit tenuous but that the work becomes more impressive as it develops. I was amused to read that the composer himself had apparently referred to ‘tinkles’ at the extreme ends of the keyboard. The basic fact is that this is a series of ‘studies in rhythm and texture rather than in melodic variations in the traditional sense’ (Manchester Guardian 6 March 1964). There are eighteen ‘variations’ in all with a short ‘cadenza’ interposed between the penultimate and final one. The structural material of the piece is based on the tritone (C-F#): the composer referred to this as the ‘springboard of the theme’. It is the rhythmic diversity of this work that I find memorable. The sound-world of this piece is more Bartók than Brahms or Rachmaninov; however there are a number of meditative moments scattered here and there.
The Variations were completed in 1964 and were first played on 18 February of that year by the composer at the Newcastle Upon Tyne People’s Theatre Arts Centre as part of a Tyneside Music Society event. They are dedicated to Gordon Greene with whom McCabe had studied piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music.
Aubade, Study no. 4 was composed in 1970. McCabe wrote that, ‘the music derives principally from the extended use of arpeggio features and appoggiaturas (grace notes), as the pianistic elements uppermost in the piece … it is intended to conjure up not so much the coming dawn … but the moment of stillness before dawn.’ This study created a feeling of stasis often associated with the music of Olivier Messiaen, but without the liturgical colourings.
Gaudi, Study no.3 is a major work by any account. Inspired more by the Montserrat landscape of rocky outcrops that influenced Gaudi than any particular building by the legendary architect, this piece is a constant flux of powerful, declamatory eruptions with moments of reflective calm. There are five thematic elements, which are both contrasting and complex: they are pieced together in the form of a large (but not classical) rondo. McCabe uses a wide palette of pianistic colour including ‘Bartókian’ clusters, irregular rhythmic writing, bell-like music and counterpoint. This stunning music reflects the sunshine of Spain in its ‘kaleidoscope’ of musical colourings.
Mosaic (Study No.6) is the latest of the series of Studies. It was composed in 1980 for the North Wales Festival and was dedicated to William Mathias. The inspiration for this music are the mosaics which the composer saw in the mosques of Damascus during a concert tour. The study is based on a tone-row, which is not treated ‘serially’ in a strict sense; it is simply a source for material. This is a work of considerable length that explores ‘a fantasia-like set of dovetailed and freewheeling variations’. It is a complex piece that places great demands on the pianist. I spite of a number of climaxes and outbursts I found this a deeply meditative work.
The Five Bagatelles are quite beautiful in their exploration of a number of relatively restrained moods - the Toccata excepted. They were commissioned by Robin Elkin, the music publisher, were completed in 1963 and dedicated to ‘Isobel’. The five bagatelles last less than three and half minutes with the opening Capriccio being a mere 36 seconds long. Yet these are not ‘trifles’ as such. They are well-conceived and convincing miniatures that responded to a request ‘for not-too-difficult 12-note pieces’. McCabe may have used serial techniques to engineer these Bagatelles, however the constructional process does not interfere with their magical quality and sheer beauty. The Five Bagatelles are ‘Capriccio’, ‘Aria’, ‘Elegia’, ‘Toccata’ and ‘Notturno’.
John McCabe’s most important piano work is often claimed to be the Haydn Variations. It was commissioned by the City Music Society and was composed during 1982-83. The work was dedicated to the pianist Philip Fowke who gave the premiere in London Goldsmith’s Hall on 26 October 1983. In preparing for this review, I read both assessments of the old BMS CD noted above. I picked up on Bob Briggs' statement that ‘the Haydn Variations start with quite a shock – you cannot be prepared for this at all! It’s a most arresting opening – more Rachmaninov than Haydn – but once the piece gets going it’s pure McCabe’. It is really a brilliant overview of this work. The liner-notes point out the rather unorthodox nature of these ‘variations’. The theme, which is derived from the first movement (Moderato) of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No 32 in G minor, Hob XVI: 44, does not actually appear until page 32 of the score - there are 53 pages in total. John McCabe has stated that the theme is presented ‘surrounded by remote harmonies giving it the air of something being recollected rather hazily.’ The composer insists that everything in the work is derived from this theme ‘even when the music seems far removed from it.’
I felt that I was listening to a sonata rather than a set of variations, and this view is supported by the tripartite nature of the piece. The opening section is fast, followed by a much slower and reflective middle part which is succeeded by music that gradually increases in pace and virtuosity.
The playing by John McCabe is beyond fault. I have not heard the old PYE LP of the Bagatelles (GSGC 14116) or the two studies released on RCA (RL 25076) so I am unable to offer comparisons. The liner notes are by Guy Rickards. They are comprehensive and amount to a major study of these works: they bear study before and after listening to this music. The ambience of the recording is perfect.
It is good that McCabe’s music is attracting more attention from Naxos. I do hope that this trend will continue, both with the orchestral works which surely demand a complete cycle of his symphonies, and the other piano works that still await a premiere recording. This present CD is an important re-release of a valuable British Music Society disc that some people — like me — may have missed first time round.