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Three orchestral works by John McCabe on CD

CD Review
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Music and Vision at the Presteigne FestivalJohn McCabe's orchestral landscapes glow with colour and he's truly an artist. His language and technique are derived as an amalgam of many influences, and it is likely that he functions more assuredly as an artist this way than if a dominant personality had forced anarchy.

Of the three works played here the oldest is Notturni ed alba, first performed by Sheila Armstrong and the CBSO under Louis Fremaux at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1970. It sings of the night, setting several suitable Latin poems. My knowledge of McCabe's music of that time leads to the firm conclusion that this work concluded his first period, with the other two works here recorded from the next.

Notturni's atmosphere is cast quickly, like a backdrop. Darkness obliterates, the hymn before sleep (click for music) is both disturbing yet wearisome. The mood changes to longing before dreams mock and fears unsettle the mind. As dawn slowly breaks and the sun rises, the music and spirit rise with it to meet the new day. Enthusiasm for this work goes back to my presence at the song cycle's first performance, which I recall generating much attention. (Jill Gomez, who made the recording, sings with both beauty and atmosphere.)

John McCabe. The Chagall Windows. Notturni ed alba. Symphony No 2. Copyright (c) 1999 EMI Records Ltd.McCabe's Chagall Windows is stylistically in a similar mould, although of greater length and conceived differently. The composer was much taken with Marc Chagall's stained glass windows for the university medical centre in Jerusalem. Almost instantaneously on seeing photographs, McCabe resolved to put his feelings into music. As Granada TV had decided upon a documentary depicting the birth of a new orchestral work from commission (in this case, the Hallé Orchestra) to first performance, they picked on this work of McCabe, and flew him out to see the windows in situ.

As the composer has made clear, this work is not programmatic, rather a one-movement symphony shaped by the subject matter of the twelve windows and seen essentially as diversity in unity. Five years on from Notturni, McCabe is consistent in style and evolving his processes towards a richer quality of structural balance and development. Chagall's conception of the twelve tribes of Israel is the pivot on which this music rests, and from the result McCabe has given his conception imaginative force and quality. (click for music)

Symphony 2 closely followed Notturni ed Alba, to be premièred by Frémaux and the CBSO in September 1971. Consequently, it has overtones of the earlier work, although it is looking forward and new subtleties of development are evident. The composer tells us that the film The Wild Bunch had links with his thinking when he was planning the new symphony. The succession of moods in the five sections are varied, although an overall feeling of suppression is felt as bursts of energy flare up and down after the first section, mostly followed with quiet unease. Rarely is total relaxation present, (click for music) so McCabe is evidently expressing strong feelings that animate the music. And that is vital for motivating creative power.

Since this music of 20 years ago, John McCabe has progressed along his chosen line remaining true to his feelings, and consequently composing always with strong purpose and a masterly skill in projecting it to the listener.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, August 28th 1999



The Chagall Windows *
Notturni ed alba +
Symphony No 2 +

* Hallé Orchestra / James Loughran
+ Jill Gomez with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
/ Louis Frémaux

EMI Classics CDM 5 67120 2          ADD            TT: 75'20

This compilation copyright (P) 1999 EMI Records Ltd.

Series Editor, Richard Abram


Hear the Presteigne Festival Orchestra play John McCabe's Red Leaves
live at the Presteigne Festival tonight.

'John McCabe is one of the most talented and versatile figures on the British Music scene, excelling as composer, performer and academic'
- BBC Music Magazine, June 1999

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