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John McCabe

Two works by John McCabe have just been reissued, forty-four years after they were recorded, in 1973, in a boxed set of the complete recordings of the late Louis Frémaux with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Originally on HMV and later re-released by EMI, they now join works by Berlioz, Poulenc, Walton and others in Warner Classics' twelve-CD Frémaux commemorative set, 0190295886738.

The CBSO and Frémaux gave the premieres of both McCabe works, one the well-known, luxuriantly orchestrated song-cycle, Notturni ed Alba for soprano (Jill Gomez) and orchestra, which was a Three Choirs Festival commission. The other, written shortly afterwards, was his Second Symphony (1971), a Feeney Trust commission for the CBSO. The symphony caused considerable consternation at the time, as John pointed out that the source of his inspiration was the notorious Sam Peckinpah western, The Wild Bunch. The reason for the film's notoriety was its considerable violence, and John wrote a lengthy article, The Film behind the Symphony, detailing his feelings about the film (which he considered a work of great art) and his reasons for writing the symphony. One was that he felt that the film did not glorify violence in itself, but was a genuine tragedy, both regarding the central character, and also in its depiction of the tendency of the human race towards cycles of violence - an idea as relevant today as it was then. Another reason was the thoroughly 'musical' shape of the film, which he regarded as almost symphonic. The Wild Bunch drew out an almost visceral response from the composer, then aged only thirty-two, and is among his finest compositions.

It may not be generally known that John McCabe had a deep interest in, and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the cinema, including not only American and British films, but also European, Japanese and classic Indian films. The Second Symphony was one of at least three works to be inspired by film, another being his Piano Quintet, The Woman by the Sea, in which the inspiration was Kenji Mizoguchi's tragic take on a mediaeval Japanese story, Sansho Dayu, a recording of which is due to be released by NMC later this year.


Posted: 11 June 2017

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