Grieg’s final two collections of piano pieces make for special listening in these insightful and persuasive readings by John McCabe (1939-2015). Somm’s presentation places Stimmungen (Moods) first. The richly expressive ‘Resignation’ really hauls the listener in – so personal, so mysterious – the composer of those numerous Lyric Pieces instantly recognisable but now distilled. The seven movements of Opus 73 (1905) make for rewarding sharing: the economy of Grieg’s writing giving each note significance, especially when essayed by the sympathetic hands of McCabe. There is a forward-looking quality to these miniatures, Liszt in the background, not least in the tormented ‘Night Ride’, which is leavened by more starlit writing. None of this music is predictable, tantalising in its harmonic surprises, and often quite lovely and picturesque, while ‘Hommage à Chopin’ is an innate tribute.
Twenty-four pieces playing for sixty minutes gives an idea of the pieces’ compactness. When you consider that a couple hover around the five-minute mark, with one just a little shorter, then that intensifies just how brief most are. However, each one creates an ear-catching impression and the seventeen numbers of Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances, 1902) include four that are Bridal-related. Once again, there is a sense of Grieg refining and even experimenting, if never at the expense of charm, suggestion or the expressive implication of his indigenous musical heritage.
McCabe plays with relish and perception, opening up abundant worlds of illustration. The master-tapes, originally produced and engineered by Robert (Bob) Auger, have been painstakingly restored by Martin Nicholls to reveal tangible sound, warm and truthful, that conveys fully music that could well be a revelation, as accounted for by someone who clearly held this music very dear. Somm’s presentation includes the pianist’s sleeve-note for the RCA Red Seal LP as well as contributions from Robert Matthew-Walker and Monica McCabe, the composer-pianist’s widow.
This is a stimulating release, threefold – for the engaging music, these very particular performances of it, and for keeping us in touch with John McCabe’s wonderful artistry, and it also makes a fine complement to his versions of Carl Nielsen’s output for piano.