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John McCABE (1939-2015)
Requiem Sequence (1971) [14:53]
Visions (1983) [10:13]
Irish Song Book Part 1 (1994) [17:45]
Siberia (1980) [7:15]
Two Dances from ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (1997) [5:58]
Desert IV: Vista (1983) [7:46]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Theme and Four Studies (c.1940) [9:06]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano)
Richard Utley (piano)
John McCabe (piano)
John Turner (recorder)
William Byrd Singers/Stephen Wilkinson
Northern Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Ward
rec. 19 April 2015, King’s School Macclesfield (Requiem); 15 October 1996 Sale United Reformed Church (Visions, Siberia); 20 July 2015 Cardiff University Concert Hall (Irish Song Book); 30 October 2000 St Thomas Church Stockport (Dances); 30 October 2015 ASC Recording (Desert IV); 16 September 1995 ASC Recording (Theme and Four Studies)

I was fascinated by the beautiful Requiem Sequence written in 1971. It makes use of the text of Latin Requiem the mass, but the music is treated as a ‘sacred poem’ rather than as a liturgical text. It is presented as a cantata, with the stunning voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers accompanied by solo piano (Richard Utley). It allows the listener to concentrate on the meaning of the text rather than perceiving it as a part of liturgical theatre, with (necessary) words, actions, décor and movement. The main argument of the piece is presented in an arch form, with a rhythmic central Sanctus and Benedictus section surrounded by music that has echoes of plainchant. The piano plays a vital role in the development of this music. The work was written in memory of the Lancashire-born composer, Alan Rawsthorne, who had died that year. The first performance was given at the Wigmore Hall on 7 February 1979 by Jane Manning, soprano and Richard Rodney Bennett, piano.

The choral work, Visions, was a commission for the 1984 Harrogate International Festival. It was premiered there by the BBC Northern Singers. McCabe writes that the work was inspired by a reading of the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, who was born in Dublin in 1803. After an education at a Jesuit school, he worked as a lawyer’s clerk, then for the Ordnance Survey and latterly as an assistant in Trinity College Library. His early poetry was apparently ‘a-political’ but subsequent to the Great Famine, he began to explore Irish nationalistic themes. He had a tragic life, being afflicted with illness, depression and irrational fears. He was an eccentric – appearing on Dublin streets wearing a long cloak, green spectacles and a blonde wig. In 1849, he died from of cholera: his health had been compromised by malnutrition, poverty, opium and alcohol. W.B. Yeats considered Mangan to be one of the best Irish poets.

The entire Mangan Trilogy was presented on the Naxos label 8.573053 in 2013. I noted in my review of that work that this Trilogy could be presented in its entirety or as discrete sections and I suggested that the depth of meaning and the concentration of the musical language would be best rewarded by hearing each section separately. The present disc includes two of the three sections (Visions and Siberia). I was disappointed that Prima Facie records did not include the texts in the liner notes (Naxos does). The sense and symbolism of these poems are difficult and probably require some sort of commentary.

The Irish Songbook Part I was composed in 1994, with an Arts Council grant. McCabe writes that he was in two minds as whether to make this work a cantata ‘continuous but in clearly designed sections’ or as a song-cycle ‘with a specific underlying theme.’ What he finally came up with was a ‘songbook’ which he suggested would be an ongoing project. It would appear that this present ‘Part’ was the only one completed. The composer has made an eclectic collection of texts by William Larminie, Aubrey de Vere, W.B. Yeats, Padraic Pearse, John Boyle O’Reilly, and J.M. Synge. McCabe felt that the ‘Irish poetry, the vivid, powerful and immensely rich language [was]…a constant source of inspiration. The underlying theme would appear to be the ‘theme of time and memory’. The musical language is immediately approachable to the listener: it is important to understand that McCabe has not imported Irish folk tunes into this collection. These six poems are finely sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers and sensitively accompanied by Richard Uttley.

The premiere of John McCabe’s ballet Mary Queen of Scots was given in Glasgow on 3 March 1976. Like many composers in the past, McCabe has extracted two dances from the larger work for concert performance. The first, a ‘Courtly Dance’ reflects the Queen’s arrival at Holyrood. It is a sombre piece which possibly prefigures My Lord Darnley’s subsequent demise. The second is ‘Riccio’s Lute Dance’. This is a fast moving, vibrant piece that reflects the Queen’s the friendship with David Rizzio. He also came to a sticky end. There are also two Mary, Queen of Scots: Ballet Suites, both compiled in 1976. It is probably time that the ballet music was issued on CD in its entirety.

Desert IV: Vista is one of those works that grows on you after a couple of hearings. It was written at John Turner’s behest for a Festschrift celebrating Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield’s 80th birthday in 1983. The work is the fourth in a series evoking ‘various aspects of desert landscapes.’ In this particular case it was ‘vast space of the desert land and sky-scape, the immensity of distance and the sense of inwardness it can produce.’ The listener does not need to visualise the Sahara or Kalahari Desert to gain an impact from this work. I found myself imagining the desolation of the Wash in East Anglia or, more pertinently, Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. The work is written for solo recorder (tenor, with sopranino in the middle section). It is stunningly played by John Turner. The other ‘Desert pieces’ included I: Lizard, II: Horizon, III: Landscape and a choral work entitled ‘Scenes in America Deserta.’

The Theme and Four Studies by Alan Rawsthorne are a delight to hear. They hark back to some of his earlier piano pieces such as the pre-war Bagatelles (1938). The manuscript is undated and was found in the composer’s effects: it is not possible to give an exact date, however it would appear to be a post-war piece, dating from the 1940s. John McCabe gives a definitive performance of these ‘light-weight’ pieces that nod to Rawsthorne’s Concerto for string orchestra and the score for the Ealing film Lease of Life, starring Robert Donat.
A few of these pieces have appeared in one form or another over the past few years. ‘Siberia’ (ASCCSCD58); Mary, Queen of Scots, Two Dances (ASCCSCD45), Manchester Accents, 2002) and Alan Rawsthorne’s Theme and four studies (ASCCSCD3). The remainder would seem to be premiere recordings. I have struggled to find reference to the first and last of these discs in the internet catalogues or the company’s website. I have taken my information from the John McCabe website.

The useful and lucid programme notes are by John McCabe, with a personal note and brief introduction to the composer by his wife, Monica. As noted above, the inclusion of the texts would have been most helpful. I do wish that record companies would place legibility before ‘innovative design’ when it comes to CD covers and track-listings: cream coloured text on a creamy, light, orange/brown does not make for easy reading.

This is a splendid survey of some treasures from John McCabe’s catalogue. It is an imaginative selection of choral, vocal, chamber and orchestral music. I look forward to further releases from this Peak District based record company.

John France



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