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JOHN McCABE String Quartets 3-5.    Vanbrugh Quartet. Hyperion CDA 67078 (68' 15'')



The three string quartets on this disc convey the impeccable craftsmanship of their composer at every turn. Far from being restricted by the medium of the string quartet, John McCabe seems to have been inspired to write some of his most searching and colourful scores. Typically, none of the three quartet adhere to the conventional four movement format of the traditional string quartet yet there is no feeling of experimentation for its own sake, the structures seemingly determined by the musical argument rather than the other way around.

The Third String Quartet (1979) was commissioned by the Fishguard Festival and premiered by the Gabrielli Quartet. The work is cast in five satisfying movements forming an arch in three sections. There is both lyrical humanity and powerful logic to be enjoyed in this work and the Vanbrugh Quartet proves to be an ideal exponent of the piece, coping particularly brilliantly with the stark juxtaposition of fast and slow sections within the piece.

The Fourth Quartet (1982) was written in joint celebration of the Delme Quartet's 20th anniversary and Joseph Haydn's 250th anniversary. John McCabe has long been associated with Haydn (his peerless interpretations of the Piano Sonatas are still available on CD on the Decca label). The beautiful slow movement of his Third Symphony, inspired by the slow movement of String Quartet of Haydn's op76 no 6, bears witness to John McCabe's ability to translate his love of Haydn into a stunning act of homage. In the Fourth String Quartet something of Haydn's inexhaustible invention informs the inner logic and outer joy of this work. In one compact 20-minute movement, the haunting opening theme spawns nine ever-inventive and individual variations. These variations develop the theme in unexpected ways and pay tribute to the composer's craftsmanship.

The Fifth Quartet (1989), like the Third, was commissioned by the Fishguard Festival and premiered by the Gabrielli Quartet. John McCabe found inspiration for the work from a series of copper etchings by Graham Sutherland entitled "The Bees" (what a pity these etchings could not have been reproduced either in the sleeve notes or, preferably, on the cover). The fourteen movements divide into what might be described as a traditional three-movement structure. Symphonic in its organic growth and immediately attractive in its lyricism, this is the most approachable of the quartets on this disc and is probably the best place to start for anyone unfamiliar with the works of John McCabe. Its melodies and their working out are easily assimilated (the programmatic element may help here) and the names of Bartok and Shostakovitch spring to mind when searching for comparable talent writing in this medium in the 20th Century.

The Vanbrugh Quartet (based in Cork) is an ideal interpreter of this music, digging deep into these quartets and mining from it much that is precious. Meticulously prepared and strongly projected, these performances will prove hard to equal, let alone surpass. The programme notes by Guy Rickards are as informative and detailed as anyone could wish, complete with musical examples. There is the luxury of 40 different cue points on the CD to assist with more detailed analysis of the music (well worth attempting). The Hyperion recording is beyond reproach: splendidly life-like and detailed. Strongly recommended.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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