Schubert
Piano Sonata in A minor, D784
Emily Howard
Sky and Water
John Casken
The Haunting Bough
Ravel
Valses nobles et sentimentales
McCabe
Tenebrae
Frank Bridge
Three Lyrics – No.1: Heart’s Ease
John McCabe (piano)

Recorded 29 August 2010 in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, Powys
CD No: TOCCATA CLASSICS
TOCC 0139
Duration: 71 minutes
Reviewed: October 2011
It is with surprise and sadness that one reads the inscription “Farewell Recital”. But Liverpudlian John McCabe (born in 1939), one of England’s finest composers and pianists, bows out of formal concert-giving with this superb recital from George Vass’s Presteigne Festival, where he has been a regular for many years. Missing here from the evening of 29 August 2010 are a Haydn Sonata and Robert Saxton’s Chacony, which McCabe has recorded elsewhere (he has recorded all of Haydn’s sonatas), but included are his beloved Schubert and Ravel.
Schubert in A minor begins the recorded programme; very simply a deeply compelling account, opening with an ideally ‘just’ Allegro, the tempo perfectly capturing its march-like trudge and suggestion of isolation. The observance of the exposition repeat is made inevitable. McCabe presents the three movements attacca. Of the remaining two, the Andante retains a sombre stride but now with a little consolation, and the finale is sometimes grimly determined, sometimes allowing light through the dense forest. Love, respect and appreciation inform this performance. One might instinctively go to Alfred Brendel for this music, but John McCabe brings to it an illumination that is second to none.
At the recital itself, the Schubert was the final advertised work. It makes a wonderful start here. Given the ‘moveable feast’ nature of the disc’s ordering, I went next to the Ravel; a deliciously sec and lucid account of these varied (Schubert-related) waltzes that avoids preening, hiatuses and affectation. One imagines that Ravel himself would be delighted to hear McCabe’s understatement, fluency and composer-union insights.
Also included are recent works. In the miniature category are those by Emily Howard (born 1979) and John Casken (1949), both first recordings. Howard’s Sky and Water (2005), its title owing to M. C. Escher’s wood etching – fish and birds appropriating one another – opens with an arresting gesture (not unlike that in Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks) and flourishes both contrapuntally and dramatically. McCabe was in at the birth of this work; it is dedicated to him and he gave the first performance. Casken’s The Haunting Bough (1999) is rather knottier; I would not have spotted its Rameau inspiration without having read about it (rameau is French for bough, by the way). Nevertheless, this is a short and powerful piece, intriguingly intricate, reaching a central conflict between a long-held bass and rebarbative treble notes.
On a larger scale, John McCabe’s own 20-minute Tenebrae (1993) receives its first recording by the composer. Written for Barry Douglas, the work’s “darkness” quotient were the deaths of the versatile conductor Sir Charles Groves and fellow-composers William Mathias and Stephen Oliver. Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil is also cited as an inspiration, as are stylistic imprints by Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. Tenebrae – “one of my better works”, the composer modestly writes – is a complex, wide-ranging, journeying (gathering pace and passion to its mid-point) and satisfying work. It demands several listens. It’s good to have McCabe himself playing it as a permanent fixture. After which, the encore is Frank Bridge’s Heart’s Ease, indeed “a perfect way to finish”, gently pealing and winding down – it does what it says on the title page.
The CD’s annotation is generous – written notes by the composers, including McCabe on himself, Ravel and Schubert, and Guy Rickards has penned a tribute to the composer-pianist. There are though a couple of minor errors in the presentation: the disc’s total playing time is two minutes less than the 73 stated, and the Ravel plays for 14 minutes rather the indicated 10 (now that would be quick!) The recording relays clearly a live performance, the audience an absorbed and comforting presence, although applause is not retained.
This is an unusual release. It is valedictory by design yet displays the performer at the top of his game – and what a truly excellent pianist and interpreter John McCabe is. It is moving and inspiring to hear these performances.

 

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