After leaving the Royal Manchester College of Music he spent a year at the Munich Hochschule für Musik. Three years as resident pianist at University College, Cardiff followed but it was the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester that launched his career as a composer with a performance in 1963 of his First Violin Concerto (1959) with Martin Milner as the soloist. Two years later Maurice Handford conducted the work that put McCabe on the map, his Variations on a Theme of Hartmann (1964), a composer whose music McCabe had discovered whilst at the Munich Hochschule für Musik.
This led to a Hallé commission resulting in his Symphony No.1 Elegy (1965) which Sir John Barbirolli conducted at the Cheltenham Festival of 1966 and was a work that indicated that this was a composer in touch with the major trends of 20th century music whilst not attracted to the avant-garde fashions of the time.
John McCabe has composed in most forms except large-scale opera. He is well known as a virtuoso pianist but is also a writer and was for seven years Director of the London College of Music
It is a recording of McCabe’s First Symphony that has been brought together with his orchestral work Tuning and piano works Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt, Piano Study No. 1, ‘Capriccio’ and Piano Study No. 2, ‘Sostenuto’ that have been brought together on a new disc from Naxos www.naxos.com
This disc is appropriately called Composer, Pianist, Conductor given that John McCabe appears in each guise and features recordings made between 1967 and 1986 most of which have only appeared on LP from the Pye and RCA labels.
McCabe’s Symphony No. 1, "Elegy" (1965) appears in a fine recording from 1967 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra www.lpo.org.uk conducted by John Snashall. In three movements, the Prelude: Lento moderato opens with hushed tubular bells, full of atmosphere and expectancy. There are some fine orchestral textures as the timpani continue a slow, steady rhythmic pulse over which strings and woodwind provide little motifs and flourishes. Soon the music rises up with brass intoning a motif, almost as though it is the chiming of bells with their repeated rhythmic motif. Scurrying strings appear before the music falls to a hushed, repeated pulse, before we are taken into a quiet coda.
A side drum sets a rhythm to Dance: Allegro molto to which the woodwind add a rhythmic theme. The strings take over as other individual instruments decorate the theme soon becoming more dramatic and decisive. When the music quietens there are some lovely little details from various instruments. A louder side drum is heard as the orchestra makes a series of dynamic outbursts before a sudden cut off.
There is a dissonant opening to the final movement marked Elegy: Adagio - Allegro vivo – Adagio before the music falls to a hush. The opening is repeated and again falls to a hush as a bassoon brings a gentle theme over hushed pulsating strings. There is another outburst from the orchestra before the strings bring a rather romantic theme, hesitant at first but soon elaborated and developed. At times there is the feel of Bartok as McCabe soon builds the music with brass before scurrying woodwind appear providing many lovely textures and orchestral colours. The music leads to a moment of clashing percussion and orchestral climax before falling back with a repeated motif to silence out of which mysterious, swirling hushed orchestral sounds are heard. A viola rises out of the hush, a moment of pure poetry, before a clarinet appears against a hovering background before the work ends on a single little note.
John Snashall and the London Philharmonic Orchestra give a first rate performance of this very fine symphony.
McCabe is the pianist in his Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt (1967) which takes its theme from the opening of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. There is a gentle opening where the theme cannot yet be discerned but soon there are sudden upward runs on the keyboard leading to a fast moving and dynamic passage taking us through some tremendous moments, brilliantly played. There is a section where there are high trills over a lower left hand theme, a beautifully languid passage and a delicate mysterious section, hauntingly lovely before the music rises up with some fine chords and tremendously rhythmic playing and cascading notes lead to the coda.
This really is a terrific piece expertly played by the composer. The 1977 recording is extremely good.
John McCabe continues on this disc with his two piano studies. Piano Study No. 1, "Capriccio" (1969) opens with a rippling motif full of rapid notes that suddenly dart out, sometimes delicate, sometimes dynamic. Centrally broader chords appear quietly against the rapid higher notes before the music continues through some lovely passages of rippling upper notes against the lower theme. Eventually the music becomes more insistent and dynamic with some terrific rattling chords before the gentle end.
Deep chords are repeated against a little theme in the upper most register as the Piano Study No. 2, "Sostenuto" (1969) reveals itself. Soon the music develops through a serious of gentle little passages with some exquisite playing from McCabe. The music eventually becomes more dynamic and rich in chords, with the insistent theme being heard against crashing chords. The music quietens and slows but louder chords still appear against a louder rippling motif before the opening returns bringing a sense of completeness as the music fades to nothing.
John McCabe gives phenomenally good performances of these two Studies which again were very well recorded in 1977.
With McCabe’s orchestral work Tuning (1985) we hear him in the role of conductor as well as composer. This work was commissioned by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland www.nyos.co.uk who are recorded here at Glasgow City Hall, Scotland in 1986.
A single ‘A’ from the oboe opens this piece before the strings of the orchestra spread out creating a quiet shifting theme. Percussion join as the music develops with stunningly beautiful results, woodwind with xylophone and blocks appearing then the brass followed by drums and timpani. Part way there is a lovely quiet section for hushed orchestra and trombone to which the oboe adds a contribution in some exceptionally exquisite writing. The music moves through some superb orchestral moments as it rises and falls before arriving at a section where the brass dominate and the music leads to a raucous pitch to conclude.
This is a terrific piece well recorded live in 1986. The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland is simply brilliant, rising to all of McCabe’s challenges. The well-deserved applause is left in.
If one wants an excellent introduction to John McCabe the composer, as well as pianist and conductor you cannot do better than this new disc. There are excellent notes by the composer and Robert Matthew Walker.