Sunday, 15 July 2012

John McCabe: Chamber music on Guild

I first discovered the music of John McCabe in an old plastic box outside Hughes Second Hand Bookshop in Llandudno- circa 1975. Amongst many vinyl records there was a copy of the EMI recording of the Chagall Windows. This record was marked up ‘Not for Sale’ so I have always assumed that it was someone’s review copy.  I remember getting it home and being rather disappointed. The music seemed oddly dissonant and far removed from Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending which I had also bought at the same shop. However a few years later I heard a couple of McCabe’s organ pieces which I thoroughly enjoyed. When the Chagall Windows was re-released on CD I bought a copy – one again second-hand. This time I appreciated it and began to understand the composer’s musical language.  Over the years I have heard a fair number of works from McCabe’s pen, and generally I have liked what I have heard.  As an aside, my favourite piece by him is Cloudcatcher Fell for brass band.
John McCabe has been reasonably well served by the recording industry. Dutton Epoch has released a couple of excellent CDs dedicated to his concerted pieces, including two piano concertos. Hyperion has offered his Symphony (Of Time and the River). His major ballet scores Arthur Pendragon and Edward II are both currently available.  Many more pieces large and small are in the various catalogues and reward searching out. Some works will only be located on vinyl by the dedicated collector.

The present CD of chamber works is therefore a major addition to the repertoire. I have glanced through the composer’s website discography and believe that only one of these works, Fauvel’s Rondeaux is currently available elsewhere - Dutton Epoch CDLX 7125.  The present version of this work makes use of the bass clarinet.
I have never listened to any of these works before, so I guess that I come to them with a largely innocent ear. I am grateful to the excellent liner notes by the composer.
I believe that 63 minutes of clarinet tone is a lot for the average listener to cope with at one sitting, so I suggest taking these pieces, one at a time. They are presented on the disc in chronological order: I recommend listening to the works thus.

Movements is an excellent little work that provides a fine introduction to John McCabe’s ‘early’ chamber music style. The seven very short 'movements’ were originally composed in 1964 when the composer was about 25 years old. They were dedicated to the Gabrieli Ensemble.  The inspiration for the work came from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. The full sense of this book (I have not read it) is, apparently, only revealed after finishing it.  The progress of the music is in the form of a palindrome, though to be honest, without the score I would probably not have noticed. The last three sections, an allegro agitato, an allegretto and the concluding lento are palindromes of the first three movements played in reverse order. The middle section is an adagio and represents the literal heart of the piece.
McCabe notes that a ‘free variation technique’ is used to create the ‘melodic’ interest in this work.  The composer has avoided the danger of allowing the constructive elements of Movements to reduce it to some kind of pedantic exercise. The sound world may be fairly and squarely in the serialist style but he never allows this to spoil the invention and musicality of the piece.  The work was revised in 1966. I am not sure where the 1969 date in the sleeve notes comes from.

A few years later, McCabe wrote a Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano.  It was a commission by Brocklehurst-Whiston Amalgamated for the 1969 Macclesfield Arts Festival. It was dedicated to the Gervase de Peyer, William Pleeth and Peter Wallfisch trio who gave the work its first performance.  I did wonder why the composer chose to call the work a Sonata rather than a ‘Trio’, however he explains that ‘he felt that this approach, intent on treating the instruments as individuals in a dialogue rather than a single unit, would be more in keeping with a less traditional, though equally abstract style.’
The single movement work is divided into five sections. Once again the middle ‘tristamente’ is the heart of the work. The opening lento is recalled in the concluding andante. There is exciting music in both the ‘allegro’ and the ‘vivo’ sections. I do not believe that a palindrome has been used here – though the formal working out of this Sonata is certainly well-balanced and turns upon the central section. John McCabe has suggested that the inspiration for this work was partly derived from ‘a sense of loneliness and space conveyed by sections of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.’  This mood is well-achieved, although offset by some dramatic and often exciting music.

Fauvel’s Rondeaux is a massively impressive work. It was conceived for clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) violin and piano. The work is cast as a ‘gigantic’ rondo with a twist. In a classical rondo the material is presented as, for example, ABACADA.  A is the main theme and B, C & D are episodes that are usually in contrast to it. But the main theme is all important. The twist is that McCabe has provided a dynamic, powerful opening melody which is repeated as in classical rondo. However, the episodes here form ‘the substance of the music’ rather than a commentary on it.
The work is seen as a pendant to McCabe’s great ballet score Edward II where there appears a group of jugglers, acrobats, clowns and musicians. They are led by a certain Fauvel. 
The present work manages to balance the elements of ‘entertainment and the gradually darkening world of conspiracy, lust and power mania’.  It achieves this contrast brilliantly. The musical language is at once approachable and challenging. It is an exciting work with some moments of unease and discomfort for the listener.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio and Michigan State University. It was composed during 1995/96. 

The latest work on this CD is the Clarinet Quintet: La Donna. This was commissioned by Linda Merrick and the Kreutzer Quartet and was first performed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on June 15 2011.  The quintet does appear to be a little bit of a pot-pourri of styles. Fundamentally lyrical and always approachable, this is music that explores a diverse range of musical devices. From plainsong melody, dance music, hints (and only hints) of minimalist textures, jazzy interludes and even ‘pop’ the composer throws idea after idea at the listener. It is largely uplifting music, however there are some reflective moments in the score. The conclusion is a riot of sound.  It may not be fair to say that the latest work is best – but I certainly feel that this is a fine piece of music that will (hopefully) take up its place in the clarinet quintet repertoire.

I cannot fault the playing on this disk.  All the soloists and the chamber ensemble play this music with flair, concentration and obvious pleasure. I mentioned the excellent liner notes by the composer.  The sound quality is excellent and consistently reveals the clarity of the instrumentation.

I enjoyed every work on this CD, although I have to say that the Quintet and the Fauvel’s Rondeaux impressed me most.  Both works exhibit an impressive understanding of form – one a ‘traditional’ rondo and the other appearing to be largely through composed.  

Track Listing:
Movements for clarinet, violin and cello (1964/66) Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969) Fauvel’s Rondeaux for clarinet, violin and piano (1995/6) Clarinet Quintet La Donna (2010/2011) [18:45]
Linda Merrick (clarinet) Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin) Neil Heyde (cello) Aaron Shorr (piano)
Kreutzer Quartet: Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin) Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin) Morgan Goff (viola) Neil Heyde (cello)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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