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McCabe in Conversation

Composer John McCabe talks to the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley

4. Variations

 << Continued from part 3 

CM: I've just thought actually, this business about your fondness of variation form which you use a lot, and your advocacy of other composers and indeed your use, sometimes, of other composers - Max Reger. Is he a composer who means anything to you, because he's tended to operate in a similar way.

JM: Well now yes, it's very interesting you should ask that because I've just bought the record by Marc-André Hamelin, who is a pianist I greatly admire, of two sets of Reger variations - the Bach variations and the Telemann variations.

CM: Yes, because he did Bach variations, Telemann,

CM/JM: Mozart,

JM: Hiller,

CM/JM: Yes,

CM: Beethoven,

JM: Beethoven, that's right. The two piano one isn't it, the Beethoven?

CM: Yes

JM: Which has also just come out on record.

JM: The reason I bought it is because I wanted a CD of the Telemann variations - I have got a cassette of Jorge Bolet playing it, which is wonderful, and I was really thrilled at this piece. Actually for many years I loathed Reger. He was one of the people I would pick out - I'm a great enthusiast, and I would talk about the composers I like, and people would say 'Is there anybody you don't like?', and first of all I would say 'most of Schönberg', and then I would say 'Reger'. But actually I've heard so many pieces of Reger's that I've liked in the last few years that I've begun to revise that opinion fairly drastically. I don't know enough to say that I would still like the pieces I used to dislike, but I've encountered so many new pieces - and also performances - the Bach variations for piano - I used to have a record which was really of what I think must have been a very dull performance. And it really does need to be played brilliantly - it's like Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith which is a great great masterpiece, but it does need to be played with warmth and wit and sympathy, and I think Reger needs to be played with an extra degree of commitment and personal involvement, and I think the performance I heard just didn't have that. I bought a record of Rudolf Serkin playing it and suddenly thought 'Ah well, this is better than I thought', and Hamelin's recording is just staggering, and it becomes then a really marvellous work. So I've changed my opinion rather about him.

JM: There is a thing about variations which I think is interesting, and nobody else may find this interesting, and I apologise if that's so, but I think that variations appeal to the German and I suppose the British or the English - I'm never very sure which word to use.

CM: English these days isn't it, because the Scots have got their independence, ...

JM: Yes they have. Well it may well be the English actually, thinking about it. But I think the German and the English like variations because they like to handle material and they like to play with material - I'm talking about musical material. And writing variations, however serious the work may be - the Diabelli variations is a very serious piece, but it's a kind of investigating - an exploring of the material in a very detailed way, and I think it appeals to that particular kind of mind. When you come to Russian composers, and I mean I'm on dangerous ground here because there are some great Russian variations, but they are on the whole fewer. Tchaikovsky wrote some superb variations - Rococo Variations - the Suite No 3 in G - the variations which are never played in the concert hall these days but I think one of his finest pieces, and it's a great set of variations, but there aren't that many, and when you come across Russian variations, on the whole they're more decorative than investigative, if you follow me. French composers - rather the same, there's a marvellous set of variations for piano by Dukas, and there are of course, well César Franck would, like Monsieur Poirot, probably have hated being called French since he was Belgian ...

CM: Yes

JM: ...but the Symphonic Variations is a masterpiece of that particular kind, and there are others, but it's not something that French composers or Russian composers sit down and write so regularly. Several composer friends of mine have, various times, said they're having problems getting down - they don't know how to start a piece, and I always say 'Write a set of variations' and they nearly always do, because it's something that appeals to this particular kind of mind.

CM: That's interesting, yes.

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Copyright © Christopher Morley / John McCabe, August 29th 1999
(Transcription from taped conversation by Keith Bramich)

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