Concerto for Orchestra
The Chagall Windows
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink [Chagall Windows / Philharmonic Concerto]
Sir Georg Solti
Recorded in Royal Festival Hall, London – 30 November 1975 (Chagall Windows), 31 October 1976 (Philharmonic Concerto) & 10 February 1983
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: February 2009
CD No: LPO – 0023
Duration: 70 minutes
John McCabe turns 70 on 21 April 2009, so the release of this enterprising anthology (whose contents have, incidentally, already appeared within Volume 2 of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th-Anniversary sets) is opportunely timed.
There can be few more durable or alluring British orchestral scores from the last 50 years than The Chagall Windows (1974). It was in the early 1960s that McCabe first saw (in a magazine supplement) Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows at Jerusalem’s Hadasseh-Hebrew University and their depiction of the sons of Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Older readers may recall that absorbing Granada Television documentary from 1974 charting the work’s genesis: only when he was able to view the windows in situ did McCabe realise “that the work had to be continuous, in several blocks of interlinked sections, the whole forming a kind of symphonic overall shape”. (He has also commented elsewhere that he now regards the piece as effectively a single-movement symphony.)
Bernard Haitink’s was the London premiere of a work commissioned by the Hallé the previous season (James Loughran’s admirable January 1975 EMI recording was last available on a 1999 British Composers compilation – now sadly deleted). It’s a meticulously prepared, fluent and ultimately very exciting rendering, greeted with understandable enthusiasm by the Royal Festival Hall audience.
McCabe’s Concerto for Orchestra was composed in 1982 for the LPO’s Golden Jubilee (in the booklet the composer recalls how “I was particularly moved when told it was the orchestral members themselves who had chosen me”). It is another substantial, immaculately crafted and highly rewarding creation, well worth getting to know. McCabe likens its overall shape to a large-scale passacaglia and acknowledges the music’s structural debt to Faschingsschwank aus Wien (indeed, the titles of its three middle movements – ‘Scherzino’, ‘Romanze’ and ‘Intermezzo’ – are identical to those of Schumann’s piano work, albeit with the order changed).
This world premiere performance from February 1983 is a corker, and my own reactions chime precisely with those of the composer: “Solti’s energy and control of large-scale form, plus the brilliance of the LPO, gave the Concerto the ideal start in life.”
Sandwiched between the two McCabe items comes Malcolm Arnold’s Philharmonic Concerto, a strongly communicative and resourceful showpiece written for the orchestra’s American tour of 1976. In the work’s world premiere, Haitink and the LPO deliver the goods with gusto and no mean panache, though on balance I do feel Vernon Handley’s 2004 concert performance (for this same label) has the greater musicality, composure and staying power.
Boasting very decent transfers (save for an over-processed ‘background’ in McCabe’s Concerto for Orchestra), this makes a most valuable and appealing triptych – not to be missed!