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Musical virtues

PAUL ADRIAN ROOKE discovers the string quartets of John McCabe

CD Review
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Music and Vision at the Presteigne FestivalWhat attracted me immediately to John McCabe's music, first encountered over 25 years ago, was its immense rhythmic vitality, exquisite sense of colour, stunningly beautiful melodies, rich harmony, and coherent structures. His musical ideas and quality of invention are so inspired that each piece creates a world of its own, a world which says, 'This is how things always should have been'. That is, the music makes complete sense.

John McCabe - String Quartets 3,4,5. Copyright (c) 1999 Hyperion Records Ltd.None of the quartets on this CD are recent and were previously unrecorded. What a delight, therefore, to hear them at leisure. Each is a unified and convincing work: a perfect example of McCabe's musical virtues.

The opening of Quartet 3, for example, fascinates me with its contrasted sonorities, a combination of the spectral (violin 1), the melancholy (viola), and the nervous (violin 2 and cello) (click to listen). It is in three parts with five movements: the middle part comprising two miniature Scherzi around a central Romanza, which is again full of exquisite sonorities and textures, and imbued with intense feeling. I love the two Scherzi, both complete souls of wit! The playing of the Vanbrugh Quartet throughout the CD is superb, as exemplified by their excellent co-ordination in the first Scherzo (click to listen).

The fourth Quartet, in one movement, is a set of nine variations, alternately slow and fast. It is an exceptionally unified work with abounding beauties and vigours. For beauty of melodic line, the fourth variation (click to listen), and, again, superb ensemble playing, the fifth (click to listen).

The fifth Quartet, like many of McCabe's compositions, was inspired by an extra-musical idea. This came from a series of aquatints by Graham Sutherland entitled The Bees. Its fourteen sections have titles derived from the world of the apiary but, as McCabe says, '... you could set out to express something ... but it's still got to stand up as music ...' (Classic CD, September 1999, p27). As music, it is in three movements played without a break, the first five sections, the next six, then the final three comprising the three movements. It is an intriguing work full of memorable music. Of its many delights, The Court, The Figure of Eight Dance: Orientation to Sources of Nectar and Pollen, Round Dance: Orientation to Sources of Nectar and Pollen (click to listen), Bee and Flower, Wild Nest, Expulsion and Killing of an Enemy, and Fight between Workers and Drones (click to listen), are especially memorable as music to me.

This is simply a noteworthy CD, a credit to composer, performers, and production team alike. Guy Richards is to be complimented for his booklet notes; and Hyperion are to be thanked and congratulated for such a worthy addition to John McCabe's list of recordings. I find him an exceptionally rewarding composer, and worthy of yet more recordings.

Copyright © Paul Adrian Rooke, August 25th 1999



String Quartets Nos 3, 4 and 5

The Vanbrugh Quartet

Hyperion CDA67078          DDD            TT: 68'15

Copyright © 1999 Hyperion Records Ltd.

Producer Andrew Keener

Recorded in Victoria Rooms, Bristol on 25-27 July 1998


Hear the Vanbrugh Quartet play John McCabe's Quartet No 5
live at the Presteigne Festival on Friday 27 August 1999, 8pm

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