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John Mcabe Farewell Recital

Mccabe / Schubert / Howard / Casken
Release Date: 07/10/2012 
Label:  Toccata Classics   Catalog #: 139   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz SchubertJohn CaskenJohn McCabeMaurice Ravel,   ... 
Performer:  John McCabe
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews


SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in a, D 784. E. HOWARD Sky and Water. CASKEN The Haunting Bough. RAVEL Valses nobles etsentimentales. McCABE Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Tenebrae. BRIDGE 3 Lyrics: No. 1: Heart’s Ease

In taking his leave from the stage, John McCabe bids us no nostalgic adieu, for his farewell recital is as much a hello as it is a goodbye. Two of these works—Emily Howard’s Sky and Water and John Casken’s The Haunting Bough —are first ever recordings; and McCabe’s own Tenebrae is its first recording by the composer.

Born in 1939, John McCabe has been in the forefront of the British music scene for several decades as a pianist, composer, author, and educator. One of his most distinguished achievements as a pianist is his mid-1990s recordings for Decca of the complete piano sonatas of Haydn, a set which appears not to have been reviewed in Fanfare . But McCabe’s service to 20th-century British composers is equally noteworthy, with important recordings of piano works by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax, Ireland, Lennox Berkeley, and Peter Fricker. McCabe’s attention to 20th-century American composers ought not to go unnoticed either. I’ve long enjoyed an EMI recording featuring McCabe and soprano Marni Nixon in songs by Charles Ives. As a composer, McCabe has produced no fewer than nine symphonies, concertos for flute, clarinet, and piano, a concerto for orchestra, and a wonderful work titled The Chagall Windows, inspired by Marc Chagall’s 12 stained glass windows created for the chapel in Jerusalem’s Hadasseh-Hebrew University Medical Center.

McCabe’s Tenebrae , heard on the present disc, has been recorded before and can be found on a Metier CD featuring pianist Tamami Honma. This, however, is its first recording by McCabe himself. In his own program note to the work, McCabe describes one stimulus for the piece being the loss of three much-loved and admired musical friends during 1992, Charles Groves and the composers William Mathias and Stephen Oliver. A second impulse was the enormous opening section of Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil , a description of the arrival of the dying poet at the port of Brundisium and his carriage through the crowded streets to the apartments in which he was to die. Thus, the title, Tenebrae is used in the sense of “darkness.” Composed in 1992–3, with the aid of funding generously provided by the Chandos Memorial Trust, the work is dedicated to Barry Douglas, who I gather premiered it but didn’t record it.

The work is quite substantial, lasting over 19 minutes. Again, according to McCabe’s own notes, three musical impulses underlie the work, the nature and form of Chopin’s Barcarolle , a typical texture to be found in Beethoven’s piano writing using the extremes of the keyboard, and perhaps above all McCabe’s long-standing fascination with the world of Liszt’s two late pieces entitled La lugubre Gondola. Tenebrae is a continuous single movement, arising out of a theme that is heard (following the short but important introduction) largely in the bass. Intervening episodes slowly move the music to an increase in pace and a central section of rhythmic character and some degree of violence. Following the final climax (marked “quasi Cadenza”), the main theme returns, now in both hands, above an accompanying bass figuration, moving the music to a sense of greater peace and possible acceptance. At the close, however, when the very opening returns, the calm is disrupted by echoes of one of the more agitated ideas, leaving the work in a mood of ambiguity and loss.

Newer and much shorter are Howard’s Sky and Water , composed in 2005, and Casken’s The Haunting Bough , composed in 1999. The former, inspired by M. C. Escher’s wood etching of the same name, is based on a computation sorting algorithm which Howard refers to as “Insertion Sort,” to achieve a transformation of pitch and melodic line. I know something about sorting algorithms used by computers, but I’m not able to make an aural connection to the concept in listening to Howard’s piece. To my ear, it could use some sorting, as in sorting out, for despite its generally atmospheric tone, it sounds like an atonal, arrhythmic, flurry of random notes punctuated by equally random rests.

The Haunting Bough is of similar character; regardless of how Casken achieves his ends, the results are strikingly similar to Howard’s piece. Casken tells us that the work was written in response to an invitation extended by Stephen Gutman to a number of composers, each asked to provide a variation on the theme of Rameau’s keyboard piece, Le Lardon . Casken speaks truth when he says, “The sound-world of my work could not be more different from Rameau’s delicate Minuet.” He’s got that right.

Far more familiar and far from underrepresented on disc are Schubert’s A-Minor Sonata, D 784, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales , pitting McCabe as pianist against some very formidable competitors. This Schubert A-Minor Sonata is the one that dates from 1823; it’s not the later A-Minor masterpiece of 1825, D 845. Still, there’s a fatalistic grimness and a pre-echoing Winterreise -like chill to the first movement, which McCabe zeroes in on and captures with icy effect. I’ve always had a special fondness for Radu Lupu in Schubert’s sonatas, but unhappily, Lupu does not take the exposition repeat; happily, McCabe does, and I find his reading every bit as probing and gripping as Lupu’s.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales has enjoyed many fine performances on disc, a top favorite among them being the one by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. McCabe tends to downplay the softer Impressionistic shades of the pieces in favor of a more angular, even percussive approach that emphasizes the sharp dissonances and Ravel’s strong neoclassical bent. McCabe wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice in this work, but he offers a personal take on it that makes for an interesting and satisfying alternative.

The program ends with Frank Bridge’s Heart’s Ease , a just under two-minute piece that came to be published together with two other pieces, Dainty Rogue and The Hedgerow , under the heading, 3 Lyrics . The individual pieces were written separately between 1921 and 1924. Heart’s Ease is true to its title, as it alternates between an Oriental-sounding motive in some sort of pentatonic scale and a kind of soft, dinner jazz-like passage.

McCabe gave this farewell recital at the Presteigne (Wales) Festival in August 2010. Though the Howard and Casken pieces are not to my taste, together they occupy less than 15-percent of this generously filled Toccata CD. McCabe’s massive Tenebrae is not easily absorbed on a first hearing, but one senses that it’s a powerful and significant work even as one grapples with its musical and psychological complexities. And the recital is nicely anchored by the familiar Schubert and Ravel items in very fine performances. If an artist feels it’s time to take leave of the stage, John McCabe does so with impeccable style and class. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano in A minor, D 784/Op. 143 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1823; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 24 Minutes 18 Secs. 
The Haunting Bough, for piano by John Casken
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 4 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Tenebrae, for piano by John McCabe
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1992-1993 
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 19 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Valses nobles et sentimentales by Maurice Ravel
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; France 
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 12 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Heart's Ease, for piano, H. 161/1 by Frank Bridge
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1921 
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 1 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Sky and Water, for piano by Emily Howard
Performer:  John McCabe (Piano)
Date of Recording: 08/29/2010 
Venue:  St. Andrew's Church, Presteigne, Powys 
Length: 6 Minutes 30 Secs. 

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