Notes and Editorial Reviews
Les martinets noirs
(Concerto for 2 violins and string orchestra).
Caravan for string orchestra.
George Vass, cond;
Orchestra Nova Ensemble;
Harriet Mackenzie (vn);
Philippa Mo (vn);
Angela Whelan (tpt)
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7290 (78:57)
There is little doubt that John McCabe (b. 1939), together with his slightly older contemporaries Alexander Goehr (b. 1932) and Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934), is among the most prominent and distinguished British composers of his generation. Besides being a prolific composer with a varied catalog in all genres, he is a brilliant pianist who has made many seminal recordings, including the complete Haydn sonatas.
In his earlier years McCabe seemed to concentrate more on absolute forms: there are seven symphonies to date plus three concertos for piano as well as many for other instruments, several sets of variations—a form at which he excels—plus a quantity of chamber music for assorted combinations. But over the past quarter-century McCabe has focused more on stage music. He has written two big ballets—
—plus a host of shorter works often with descriptive titles (many inspired by aspects of nature), such as the four works comprising this interesting new Dutton release, the first three clocking in somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes.
Subtitled “Concerto for two violins and string orchestra,” the opening work here—
Les martinets noirs
of 2003—is unusual in that the single-movement score calls for a pair of violinists who almost always play the exact same notes together throughout. The title is the French name for the birds we call swifts, and McCabe’s busy, insistently piquant writing attempts to capture “their vertiginous athleticism” and “calm supremacy of the heights,” to quote from the composer’s own annotation, and for this listener it is the most engaging of the pieces on the program.
The next two works are the first two of a series (four to date) entitled
, inspired by the subtropical landscapes of Australia. The second, composed in 1987, combines a trumpet with string orchestra but it is far from a virtuoso concerto vehicle—more of a poetic meditation evoking tangled vegetation. The first in the series was written three years earlier in 1984 for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. It began life as a kind of triple concerto for piano trio and chamber ensemble but gradually mutated into a continuously played set of pieces alternating, and occasionally combining, a string quartet, a piano trio, and a group made up of flute, clarinet, and glockenspiel (the last utilized in provocative ways). This is another sharply evocative, eventful, and variegated score displaying many of the repetitive minimalistic devices which seem to have crept into McCabe’s idiom in recent years.
The program ends with
, a strange little nine-minute piece for strings, initially written in 1987-88 for string quartet but expanded in 2011 for full string orchestra. In the composer’s words, this work “is a kind of exercise in gradual crescendo… in a series of stages, at each of which the dynamic is lifted one level.” Overall I did not find it easy to stay with, or to get a handle on, most of this disc as I have with many of McCabe’s more satisfying past offerings but other listeners may feel differently and get much more out of this impeccably played program, conducted by the always reliable George Vass and his superlative musicians.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Works on This Recording
Les martinets noirs by John McCabe
Harriet Mackenzie (Violin),
Philippa Mo (Violin)
Caravan by John McCabe
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