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John MCCABE (1939-2015)
The Woman By The Sea for piano and string quartet (2001) [18:06]
Silver Nocturnes for baritone and string quartet (2011) [20:22]
Horn Quintet (2010-2011) [23:07]
Roderick Williams (baritone), Sacconi Quartet, David Pyatt (horn), John McCabe (piano)
rec. 2009-2017, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London; Champs Hill, West Sussex
NMC RECORDINGS D230 [61:48]

The productivity of Liverpool-Irish composer, John McCabe, was phenomenal. I'll mention symphonies and string quartets of which there are seven apiece. Concertos and ballets exist too. His music was not ignored by the BBC although recording companies only latterly found the resolve to welcome his music into their studios. EMI's recordings of Notturni ed Alba, Chagall Windows, Hartmann Variations and Symphony No. 2 were a 1970s exception. McCabe was active as a writer on music and was made CBE in 1985 for his services to British music. In 2004, the ISM awarded McCabe the Distinguished Musician Award for his 'outstanding contribution to British musical life'. Here, courtesy of NMC, are three works from the chamber chapter of John McCabe's catalogue and all from the last decades of his life. It is - so far - the only all-McCabe disc in the NMC catalogue.

The piano quintet The Woman By The Sea is a work that combines the sturdy taciturn protest of the piano with the intricate silvery convolutions of the string quartet often operating close to silence. As the work progresses the roles and voices are passed between the two. The writing is modernistically volatile. We are told that the Quintet draws inspiration from the Kenji Mizoguchi film Sansho Dayu (1954). Silver Nocturnes (also known as String Quartet No. 6) for baritone and string quartet, sets poetry by three of the ‘Silver Poets’ of the sixteenth century: Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey), Sir Edward Dyer, and Sir Philip Sidney. The quartet again colours in the backdrop leaving Roderick Williams' baritone to take centre-stage and central attention. These settings, always attentively shaded by the quartet, owe their subdued, fearful, melancholy and downbeat flavour to Benjamin Britten.

McCabe, we are told, said of the French horn that it was "one of the most evocative and beautiful of all instruments". His Horn Quintet was written especially for the artists on this recording: David Pyatt (review) and the Sacconi Quartet. This three- movement work encompasses moods that are lively and easily pleasing with a touch of Tippett in the ecstatic first movement. The moody second movement has the solo instrument tracking the territory between mournfulness and sanguine aspiration. The far from sedentary finale is optimistic, insistent, single-minded and exhilarating without explicit athletics. Ultimately it fines down to contented silence. The Sacconi (Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson (violins); Robin Ashwell (viola); Cara Berridge (cello)) - clearly an elite and sensitive group of musicians - are central to all three works on this disc.

The notes (work-specific and general) by Steph Power are exemplary and have been admirably printed across the 16 pages of the booklet. The sung words of the Silver Nocturnes are provided.

Rob Barnett



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