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John McCABE (1939-2015)
Dies Resurrectiones [8:08]
Sinfonia, Op.6 [15:17]
Prelude [4:44]
Johannis-Partita, Op.30 [11:00]
Nocturne [4:22]
Le Poisson Magique [5:53]
Carol-Preludes [13:20]
Esperanza [8:12]
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 2014, St. Albans Cathedral, UK
RESONUS RES10144 [71:43]

It is a sad fact that, in most cases, composers’ reputations and performances of their music take a significant nose-dive shortly after their death, and often never recover. In the case of John McCabe, the process seems to have been slightly telescoped with his organ music seeming to pass out of consciousness in the years before his death but now, just four years on, clawing their way back into public awareness. Recorded in the year before McCabe’s death, but at the time released to mark his 75th birthday, Resonus have re-issued this excellent recording of a selection of his organ music as a tribute to a composer who, in the 1960s seemed a fixture in the recitalist’s repertory, certainly in the UK.

It was a performance of Dies Resurrectiones by that tireless champion of 20th century organ music, Allan Wicks, which first fired my enthusiasm for McCabe’s organ music, and it is wonderful to have Tom Winpenny bring this hefty score dating from 1963 so vividly back to life. It demonstrates those characteristics of McCabe’s writing which distinguish him from his contemporaries all writing at a time when British organ music was undergoing a true renaissance, with Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias and John McCabe very much at the vanguard of a style which was the complete antithesis of the dreamy cathedral-infused world of Howells. If Leighton’s writing is marked by a building of intensity through repetition and expansion of chromatic cells and Mathias’s by a jaunty rhythmic incisiveness, McCabe’s celebrates a melodic vocabulary which features repeated notes and large intervals with a clear penchant for leaps of a seventh. Dies Resurrectiones is a powerful exemplar of McCabe’s style, often making use of grotesque registrations, and calling as much for a resourceful modern organ as for a resourceful virtuoso player.

In celebration of this British organ music renaissance, in 1958 Novello started up their “International Series of Contemporary Organ Music” volumes intended for the professional recitalist and which, as the title suggested, placed music by living British composers on the same pedestal as that by overseas composers – which was not something that had seriously been done to any great extent before. Three volumes of this 33-volume series were devoted to John McCabe; vol. 24 was the Sinfonia of 1961, vol.26 was the Johannis-Partita of 1964, and vol.29 was the Elegy of 1965. Winpenny includes all three on this disc, and his unquestionable virtuosity, his strong empathy with the music and, perhaps most of all, his masterly handling of the St Alban’s organ, combine to make all three highly impressive performances in their own right.

McCabe’s organ music tended to be aimed more at the virtuoso player than the Sunday-by-Sunday church organist, but Novello’s did try to do their bit in encouraging amateur church organists to explore contemporary music, and commissioned him to write a short Prelude and Nocturne for inclusion in a volume published in 1969 called “Music Before Service”, and while the former worked very well in a church setting and was an effective piece of music despite its relative simplicity, I am not sure Nocturne suited its purpose so well. Certainly Winpenny treats both with great respect and delivers carefully paced accounts which in no way seem out of place amongst the august company of the recital works.

Having apparently given up on the organ in the 1960s, McCabe returned to the instrument in the decade before his death with two works; a set of seven short preludes on Christmas carols which, as his own note reprinted in the booklet suggests, “revive the old style of the chorale-prelude”, and Esperanza which was inspired by the world-wide news coverage of the “amazing rescue” of a group of 33 miners trapped underground for 70 days in Chile. The music is very different and has a distinctly more meditative, spiritual, element than the earlier works, but again Winpenny presents highly authoritative and convincing performances.

The disc’s title, and the cover illustration on the booklet, come from an abstract painting by Paul Klee which inspired McCabe to try and evoke the splashes of colour and the “unity through diversity” in his organ work of the same name in 1964. It is by no means the longest work on the disc, but for my money it is the one which is the most compelling and which shows off to the very best an excellent organist, an excellent organ, an excellent recording and, most of all, an excellent composer for the instrument.

Marc Rochester


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