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JOHN McCABE Piano Music: Variations, Op.22. Aubade (Study no. 4). Gaudi (Study no. 3). Bagatelles. Mosaic (Study no. 6). Haydn Variations. John McCabe (pno). BMS424CD
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String Quartets nos. 3-5. Vanbrugh Quartet. Hyperion CDA 67078. purchase Crotchet

Chagall Windows. Halle Orch. c. James Loughran. Notturni ed Alba. Symphony no. 2  Jill Gomez (sop), CBSO c. Louis Fremaux. EMI CDM5 67120 2 purchase: Crotchet £8.50

Symphony no. 4 Of Time and the River. Flute Concerto. Emily Beynon (fl), BBCSO c. Vernon Handley. Hyperion CDA 67089 (to be issued in October purchase then)  

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Having maintained only a fitful toehold in the recorded catalogue since the advent of CD, the occasion of John McCabe's 60th birthday (which actually fell on April 21st) has at last brought some long overdue and sustained attention from record companies. Perhaps the most valuable of the recent issues is that from the BMS, featuring McCabe in both his principal careers, as pianist and composer. The six works cover some twenty years, from the remarkably assured compositional virtuosity of the Variations, Op. 22 (McCabe no longer uses Opus numbers) of 1963 which so impressed the late John Ogdon and the serial brevity of the 1964 Bagatelles, to the magisterial architectonics of the Haydn Variations (1983), still this composer's most impressive solo piano piece. McCabe the player is represented here on top form, displaying a kaleidoscopic range of touch and tonal colours. Listen, for example, to his playing of the brief Bagatelles, equally attuned to the ill-tempered opening Capriccio or brash Toccata, and the quieter questing spirit of the central Elegia or final Notturno. In the stunning third study, Gaudi (1970), with its five highly differentiated musics, including Bartokian note-clusters and, most tellingly, the weird esitando passage of glassy, pianissimo counterpoint, his virtuosity, even if it is his own music, is breathtaking.

This is music-making of a very high order, but virtuosity of a similar rank is evident in the first of Hyperion's two releases, featuring the excellent Vanbrugh Quartet in the Third, Fourth and Fifth Quartets (respectively 1979, 1982 and 1989). There is a link here with the piano music disc in that the Fourth Quartet was written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Haydn's birth (which fell in 1983), as were the Haydn Variations. Both the piano work and the Quartet make use, in rather different ways, the Austrian's 'alternating variation' form. In the Quartet this is achieved in an apparently straight set of nine variations on the opening unison, 8-bar melody, in alternating slow and fast tempi, giving the impression of two sets of variations running in parallel. The level of motivic integration and development is such that the epithet "Symphonic Variations" would not be amiss, yet the work was originally conceived as a "piccolo divertimento". By contrast, the Haydn Variations, although only six minutes longer, are considerably more complex in design and concentrated in utterance. The theme, taken from Haydn's Piano Sonata no. 32, as such is not heard until the work is some two-thirds complete, and only then as a throwaway episode between two larger, slow variations. Rather, the work proceeds as if varying two different lines, which are both variations of the original. McCabe charts a course through the three dozen variations of consummate clarity, his exactness of touch illuminating every corner of this fascinating work, just as the Vanbrugh get to the heart of each of the three quartets in their programme. Indeed, the performances of nos. 3 and 4 are the finest I have heard; try the exhilarating Passacaglia finale of no. 3, inspired by a Lakeland stream tumbling down into Ullswater. The four players are put on their mettle in the extraordinary array of fourteen sections, inspired by a series of aquatints by Graham Sutherland (The Bees ), comprising no. 5, ranging from depictions of the sources of pollen to the Expulsion of an enemy. The music does not contain any satirical element in the manner of Kalevi Aho's opera Insect Life (or the symphony he derived from it), nor even Vaughan Williams' music for The Wasps, but is not merely pictorial either. The sections congregate into four variegated movements (fast-faster-slow-fast) played continuously, and totlaly unified in effect. The Vanbrugh appreciation of this structural unity is evident throughout.

The sound for these new recordings is superb, with every detail clear and no extraneous noise. The same is true also for the long-awaited EMI reissue of 1970s recordings of The Chagall Windows, Notturni ed Alba (with a radiant Jill Gomez) and Second Symphony. This is not the first outing on CD for the first two of these, having been available for a short while coupled with the Variations on a theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The symphony, especially in Fremaux's well-thought-out account, is the more important and impressive work, but one hopes the Hartmann Variations make it back into the catalogue as well. The Second is the only to have been issued to date on CD, the First having made it to LP but not to the new format. No. 3, subtitled Hommages, has never been recorded, but the Fourth, Of Time and the River, will appear from Hyperion in October coupled with a quite superb account of the wonderful Flute Concerto, played by Emily Beynon. Of Time and the River has a generalized connexion with the fine novel by Thomas Wolfe but is best heard as an abstract design, progressing through the cycle of twelve tonalities as the initial tempo slows down in the first span to silence and immobility and speeds up in the second. The tempo shifts are intended to be unnoticed by the listener, and McCabe's endeavours at such compositional sleight-of-hand are executed with great dexterity by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley, who conducted the first few performances in Australia in 1995. Their's is a vital, dynamic performance, though the laurels for this disc must go to flautist Emily Beynon, who plays like an angel and to whom the orchestra responded to a level I have rarely heard them do. I should explain here that having provided the booklet notes for this disc (and the BMS and Hyperion quartets discs as well) I got to hear a preliminary pressing.

Purchase JOHN McCABE Piano Music: Variations, Op.22. Aubade (Study no. 4). Gaudi (Study no. 3). Bagatelles. Mosaic (Study no. 6). Haydn Variations. John McCabe (pno). BMS424CD

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Guy Rickards


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