John McCabe's Farewell Recital

Both valuable historical document and joyous voyage of musical discovery

John McCabe's Farewell Recital

How sad and yet how celebratory to include this disc. John McCabe (1939-2015) was a fine composer and excellent pianist, composer and educator. My own experiences of him include a performance of Mozart's Piano concerto No. 19 in F, K 489 with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester's Free Trade Hall on January 18, 1981 (Maurice Handford conducted: the other works were McCunn's Land of the Mountain and the Flood Overture, Op. 3, a piece those forces recorded for a wonderful Classics for Pleasure LP, Hallé Encore!, and Holst's The Planets Suite - I still remember the she power of "Mars" today, some 42 years later!). My other experience was playing horn in his 1964 Symphony for Ten Wind Instruments (see here for a performance of that piece by the Northern Sinfonia Wind Ensemble).

This Toccata disc includes a brilliant, thorough appreciation of McCabe by Guy Rickards, andantes by the composer himself. He says that ...

I wanted to finish my formal solo career at the Prestaigne Festival, with which I've had a long and deeply valued association, and the choice of repertoire was very important to me. There had to be a Schubert Sonata ... and I have in recent decades always tried to sneak in Ravel whenever possible

There is something about composers performing other copmosers' music - they have the long view, able to take in structures as well as detail, and they have an enhanced understanding, and appreciation, of process. Both facets stand McCabe in good stead in the Schubert A-Minor Sonata, D 784 (Op. 143, of 1823). This is one of Schubert's finest, the minor's key bringing strength but also veiled, deep sadness. McCabe knows how to shad the music, he knows where plasticity is right and when rigidity fits in the first movement:

McCabe in his excellent notes refers to that first movements of "Brucknerian scope, even a blackness anticipating the Sibelius of some eighty years later". The second movement contains whole worlds, too, that of the Lied in its - here - wonderfully cantabile lines. There is a new compression here - the first movement expands to just under a quarter of an hour; the Andante is mere 4"27:

The finale, also short, has an orchestral aspect to it. The treble ascending scales can feel less than convincing in lesser hands, by McCabe is perfect; as is his way with the undercurrent of disquiet to the contrasting theme, and his delivery of the scurrying, chasing Scalia moments:

Good to see a pice here by Emily Howard (born 1979 - like McCabe, in Liverpool), whose Delphian release of The Anvil and Elliptics we saw recently; Elliptics was nominated in the Best Orchestral Work category of this year' Ivors. Inspired by a woodcut print by M. C. Escher, Howard's piece Sky and Water was composed in 2005. I am intrigued by how Escher's work of art, which as you can see below shows birds morphing into fish (or vice-versa depending on the direction of one's eye movement) suggested to the composer "the possibility of using a computational sorting algorithm, 'Insertion Sort' to bring about a transformation in terms of pitch and specifically melodic line". See this website for a definition (with some maths - or, if you're me, a lot of maths, but with a nice graphic of how it works to help the terminally mathematically impaired)

Escher, Sky & Water I, courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation, for educational purposes pertaining to Escher

So, the opening descending figure slowly changes to an ascending one by the end of the piece. Tha's pretty easy to hear, but the manifestation on the musical surface is brilliantly managed by Emily Howard. Surely this is how contamporary music should be? Challenging yet with signposts, this is a work characterised both by rigour, and by beauty (you might read a post this week in which I lament the state of current new music in reaction to a pre-event to the Britten Sinfonia's London concert on April 9). I remember interviewing Piere-Laurent Aimard in Berlin once, and asked him about analysis, and the complex music he plays. His answer surprised me (as an analyst myself!) - that musical expression and beauty is absolutely the most important thing, and musical instincts wok in combination with analysis. John McCabe realises this too -his performance of teh Howard is quite literally beautiful, and yet her processes - both obvious and less so - are laid bare with real profundity:

Pianist Stephen Gutman invited John McCasken to write The Haunting Bough in 1999 as part of the project Les Infants de Rameau: various composers were asked to write variations on Rameau's piece Le Lardon (just as Dukas had in his Variations, Interlude et Finale). Like the Howard, this is a first recording.

Here's a link to a YouTube of the Rameau (followed by thee next piece here, “La Boiteuse,” performed by Christophe Rousset; and here's a look to a score-video of the Dukas. Casken's take does not literally state the theme; rather, elements of it form the basis for a fantasia-like opening (a kind of post-Frescobaldi). The title of the piece comes from Rameau's name (which means “bough”). Casken’s piece was performed as the final variation (of 12) at the premiere of Gutman's project, at the Purcell Room in September 1999. McCabe seems to have complete measure of this piece; Casken's music is fluid, and yet climaxes, when they arrive, tend towards the granitic. This is a phenomenal performance; the high treble resonance, like a memory, about four minutes in is hugely impactful:

... and the Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales somehow seems just to explode naturally out fo the Casken, its opening dissonances not unrelated to Casken's sound world. Each waltz is separately tracked on this disc (always nice to see). For me, the essence of McCabe's subtlety (and his mastery of the pedal) is at its head in the fifth, “Presque lent”:

About time we had some music by the man himself. Quite right that the piece is Tenebrae (in the sense of "darknes‘) written 1992/3. The deaths of conductor Sir Charles Groves, William Mathias and Steven Olover all impacted the piece. McCabe has mentioned the was Liszt's late La lugubre Gondola has haunted him, and Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil is another significant part of the puzzle. Formally, the work is indebted to Chopin (the Barcarolle) while processes reference Beethoven's polyphony and keyboard extremes. The piece, is, I believe, a masterpiece. One composer not mentioned in the notes is Busoni, who's shadow perhaps looms somewhere here. McCabe's virtuosity is white-hot in his own piece. Tamami Honma's performance on the McCabe disc is appended in the Spotify section, but the composer's own stamp is unmistakable:

The Bridge piece, not mentioned in the notes, nor in the cover listing, is "Heart's Ease" from Three Lyrics. Presumably this was an encore. It seems to link to the Ravel harmonically at first in this performance, even to the Impressionist's take on Orientalism; and McCabe's performance seems the perfect tempo.

The prime contender here is another British pianist, Ashley Wass on Naxos, rather more indulgent and languorous, arguably too much so:

At only £8.99 on Amazon, this is a snip for a disc that is both valuable historical document and joyous voyage of musical discovery. Spotify below; the Bridge Wass Naxos disc is available here: