Déjà Reviewthis review was first published in January 2010 and the disc is still available. It should be noted since publication both composer and reviewer have passed away, the latter in 2011.

John McCabe (1939-2015)
Variations, op.22 (1963)
Aubade (Study No.4) (1970)
Gaudi (Study No.3) (1970)
Five Bagatelles (1964)
Mosaic (Study No.6) (1980)
Haydn Variations (1983)
John McCabe (piano)
rec. 1998, Bishopsgate Hall, London
British Music Society BMS424CD [76]

John McCabe is somewhat of a phenomenon in 20th, and early 21st, century music. He is a virtuoso pianist/composer in the Lisztian model, who writes very penetrating music for his own instrument, which, more often than not, is phenomenally difficult. This is perhaps proven by the fact that all the music on this disk was written for himself to play, except the Haydn Variations which was commissioned by the City Music Society for Philip Fowke who gave the premiere and broadcast the work shortly afterwards – the first solo piano work he ever wrote for another pianist!

McCabe’s earliest solo piano work is the Variations, op.22, a nightmarish piece, full of half tones, disguised corners, round which lurk new musical experiences and, at the end, the most forthright writing you can imagine. I remember hearing a broadcast of this work about the time it was written and the impact on me was immediate – as it still is. It’s a superbly laid out work, never obvious, always questioning, as well as questing, and, I’ve said it before but it is important, the composer knows exactly what he wants to say, how to say it, then, most importantly, how to bring the work to a satisfying conclusion without overstaying his welcome – McCabe could teach many younger composers this important facility.

The Bagatelles were written at the request for some “…not too difficult 12 note pieces”. In a way they are perfect McCabe pieces for they say what they have to and then go. It’s a wonder to me that he can say so much with so few notes – and this has always been McCabe’s style and approach. However, when one realizes that two of the most important composers to McCabe are Haydn and Carl Nielsen, it’s easy to see where he gets his sense of the importance of not being musically verbose. The Bagatelles are delightful miniatures, over in a trice, and they contrast starkly with the Studies.

In 1969 McCabe started a series of pieces sub–titled Study – to date there are 12 (the most recent being premièred at the Proms last summer) – and they all take their inspiration from different sources. It’s easy to see why the architect Antonio Gaudi (1852 – 1926) should have caught McCabe’s attention, and how he wrote the music he did. Gaudi’s style has been described as both expressionist and art nouveau, and McCabe’s large rondo is certainly expressionist in outlook: monolithic, forbidding and unforgettable – think of Gaudi’s Casa Batlloor orColonia Guell, both, respectively, in or near, his home town of Barcelona, with their austere lines and almost futuristic, almost science fiction like, looks and you’ve started to get some idea of this piece. Like Gaudi’s buildings, this work has a cumulative effect, it makes me think of looking ever upwards at a Church spire, and it makes for a fine composition, but its intellectual difficulties, let alone its interpretational and physical ones, will always make it remain a special composition, reserved for the very best pianists. Thank goodness the composer is one of them! Aubade is a simpler piece both to play and to listen to, but it’s not without its own special waywardness. The composer has said that, “… it is intended to conjure up not so much the coming dawn … but the moments of stillness before the dawn” and it has this effect, the static chords, juxtaposed with faster moving material, not to mention McCabe’s love of action under a simple trill, all combine to create that early morning feeling, but it’s not too comfortable. This is proven by Aubade being followed by Gaudi which takes place in the brightest of sunlight.

Mosaic, the 6th study, sets itself purely musical challenges, despite the extra–musical idea of the mosques of Damascus which McCabe saw when he was on a concert tour the year before composition. I like to think that this piece is how it is because it is dedicated to William Mathias – another composer/pianist, but not one to undertake long tours and create vast amounts of music both for himself to play and the duo partnerships that McCabe enjoyed in his concert giving life – and McCabe delighted in the compositional aspect knowing that another composer would be party to the work. It’s quite a dynamic piece, essaying a large canvas, and it’s thrilling and satisfying.

The Haydn Variations start with quite a shock – you cannot be prepared for this at all! It’s a most arresting opening – more Rachmaninov than Haydn – but once the piece gets going it’s pure McCabe. This piece seems to be a distillation of everything pianistic that McCabe has learned, both through composition and performance, for it throws everything possible into the melting pot and much of the music emerges at white heat. There is some quite violent writing here, which contrasts well with the reflective music. Oddly, when listening it’s easy, for me at least, to forget that I am listening to a set of variations, so well written and cohesive is the piece that it might be another Study! In the long run, it’s a fine piece, indeed as fine a piece as any McCabe has written for his own instrument and perhaps the writing of it for a pianist other than himself brought out this new side to his composition.

McCabe has recorded some of these works before and there is some difference in the interpretations, mostly notably that here he is more concerned with the music itself as an on going experience and there is more maturity to his playing, indeed, I don’t find myself, at any time, thinking about the pianism, the music is all. I could not be without his earlier recordings of the Variations – a real young man’s interpretation this – or the first four Studies (RCA RL 25076 LP only, long out of print) – or the Bagatelles – a real throw caution to the wind performance here – (Pye Golden Guinea GSGC 14116 LP only, long out of print) but these new looks at some old friends are most welcome. This CD also very nicely complements Tamami Honma’s recent CD of McCabe’s piano works (Metier MSVCD92071 which includes Intermezzi, Studies 1, Capriccio, 2, Sostenuto, 4, Aubade, 7, Evening Harmonies, 8, Scrunch, Tenebrae and Variations).

This is a disc for all who care about the music of England, who care about recent trends in composition for the solo piano, and fans of John McCabe, and he should have quite a few in my opinion. With very good recorded sound, showing a nice perspective on the piano and the feel of the hall but not too much so as to distort the sound image, Guy Rickards’s fine notes, which will help anyone coming new to this music, all go to make up a most worthwhile issue of some compelling British music. Bravo for this!

Bob Briggs

Availability: British Music Society