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The world première of John McCabe's Symphony on a Pavane highlighted a distinctively individual colourful if conservative musical personality in a work which was enjoyable both in its lighter qualities and deeper cultural resonances. If its genial brightness is far from the angst ridden depths of Sheriff's work, it shares with that piece a reinterpretation of Renaissance music, as it is an essay on Byrd's Fifth Pavane and Galliard from My Lady Neville's Book, a work familiar to McCabe in his other career as a concert pianist. The Byrd provides motivic and harmonic material for the whole symphony, particularly in the extensive development of a main motif, a strident 'scotch snap' idea which is relentlessly worked in the first of four linked sections which represent 'movements', cleverly linked through cinematic dissolving, including most evocatively the very end, a poetic dissolution into silence.

The atmospheric effects of film music also pervaded some of the textures, such as the brash opening in which the whole orchestra bursts into action, and textures where there is a plentiful use made of percussion including roto toms and celeste. From the fanfare angularity of the first subject idea, the rich basses provide a connecting tissue to the lyrical second subject in woodwind, mainly memorable as a colour. If there are echoes of Malcolm Arnold in the first two movements which display frenetic energy, in the third, the expressive heart of the work, it is the English pastoralism of Britten and Tippett, that comes to the fore, with beguiling solos for woodwind including the mellow bass oboe. There are some refreshing textures as in the last section, a Berlioz like galloping figure in the basses. The highpoint of the work after the poetic slow movement is the final section in which the Byrd appears, elusively as in Sheriff's work, a dream-like recollection of a past which somehow provides an anchor for the present.

The syncopated optimism of McCabe's new symphony elided well with Bernstein's jazzy vigour in his Chichester Psalms, here given a powerful account with the LPO Choir in excellent form and clear diction, the asymmetric metrical patterns alive and alert with sparkle. Especially poignant was the second movement, The Lord is my shepherd, projected in pure toned and immaculate Hebrew by the treble Christopher Sladdin, a promising chorister from St Paul's Cathedral. Here the percussive interjections of the choir and orchestra were especially dramatic. The impassioned orchestral prologue to the last movement was matched by the joyous singing and poignant a capella conclusion, the orchestral harmonic halo and trumpet intoning of the very Coplandesque cadence, framing the surprising tonal twists of the final choral cadence. The silence that followed attested to the powerful impression made by this work, masterly in its ability to balance contemporary elements and popular appeal which have made it a staple of the choral canon.

Copyright © 15 January 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK







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