John McCabe’s (b.1939) Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ was first performed on 4 July 1966 at the Cheltenham Festival by the Hallé Orchestra with their conductor John Barbirolli. It is a work that I can hardly believe is not fairly and squarely in the concert and recorded music repertoire. Yet it would appear to have been largely forgotten over the succeeding years. The present recording was originally released in 1967 on a Pye Virtuoso LP (TPLS 13005) coupled with Kenneth Leighton’s fine Concerto for String Orchestra and Adrian Cruft’s superb (but forgotten) Divertimento for string orchestra op.43. John Snashall (1930-1994) conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in all three works. McCabe’s Symphony has never appeared on CD until the present release.
The contemporary reviewer in The Gramophone noted wryly that if the Symphony’s title suggested ‘mourning’ it was ‘certainly not for the passing of the orchestral symphony, the British symphony, or the Cheltenham symphony.’ He insisted that this work ‘declares …in every bar….a continuing life for these things.’ Paul Conway has noted that this work is not a traditional four movement symphony but suggests it is ‘avowedly symphonic in language.’ It is in three unequal, but ultimately well balanced movements.
A number of reviewers seemed to have some problems with the symphony’s title – ‘Elegy’. None of the three movements present a particularly tragic mood although it is not in any way ‘light’ music. One critic at The Times newspaper suggested that it was ‘contemporary music without tears’ and was ‘immediately comprehensible in argument and full of arresting sonorities to beguile the ear.’ Another reviewer of the work’s premiere considered that it was ‘all development: no themes.’ He felt that it was discouraging for a young composer to allow ‘procedures [to] take priority over ideas.’
The first movement is almost like a slow march. It is entitled ‘Prelude’ which gives the clue to its part in the symphony’s structure: it serves as an introduction as to what follows. However two subjects are formally declared and are duly developed. I do not agree with Paul Conway’s assessment that this movement is ‘tragic, death-haunted (like George Lloyd’s Seventh Symphony)’. There is certainly a dramatic climax, but the general tone is reflective and possibly even cool rather than heart-rending.
The second movement is entitled ‘Dance’ and exploits a number of interesting musical devices including boogie-woogie, jazz and even some contemporary ‘pop’ sounds. Does some of this music nod to towards Malcolm Arnold – Heaven forfend! There is some ferocity about this music, yet it is full of positive energy and life. It appears to be almost kaleidoscopic in its structure. Listeners may feel that this movement could have been extended a little beyond its brief four minutes.
The third movement ‘Elegy’ is certainly much more profound and antagonistic than the preceding two. It opens quietly but with double-forte chordal interruptions. There are beautiful moments including some fine writing for strings in this movement that are often interrupted by something a little more sinister. There is a reprise of the ‘dance music’. The movement ends quietly and appears to have resolved any residual conflict. This symphony is, I believe, typically reflective rather than disturbing or crisis-laden.
Listening to this work after half a century seems to blow away the contemporary reviewer’s criticisms. Unless I am totally naïve, this symphony has stood up well over the years. It has the wonderful ability to sound ‘modern’ whilst at the same time nodding to a greater musical tradition that includes Sibelius. It is a work that impresses and moves the listener and holds their attention. It is not a ‘dance of death’ but something more affirmative.
The Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ (the first of seven) was written during 1965 and had been commissioned by the Hallé Society.
The three piano works are totally new to me. The ‘Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt’ (1967) is based on a passage drawn from the Hungarian composer’s ‘Faust’ Symphony. Interestingly, this theme uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. McCabe has cast his Fantasy in sonata form in spite of the title. Harold Truscott noted that this work comes as close to being in traditional ‘sonata form’ as McCabe had come to at that time. It is a complex piece that demands a hugely virtuosic technique. Tamami Honma has written that this work remains a ‘favourite among pianists and audiences’: I have to admit that I have not heard it played in the recital room or on radio. The present recording of this work was issued on the RCA Red Label in 1977 (RL 25076) however this has been deleted for many years. The liner notes for the current re-release of this work suggest that it is often Beethoven rather than Liszt who has inspired its pianism. I was captivated by the sheet explosive energy of this music. John McCabe quite naturally gives an inspiring and dramatic performance of this piece.
Equally interesting are the two piano studies dating from 1969. They are from a set of four that were designed to explore various aspects of keyboard writing and techniques of performance. The first study, a Capriccio, is effectively a toccata movement that is predicated on rapid repeated notes, an exploration of staccato chords, a wide range of dynamics with moments of complete repose and even silence. The second study ‘Sostenuto’ has ‘vigorous’ music in the middle section, framed by sustained and reflective sonorities for the opening and closing material. Honma has noted Debussy as an inspiration behind this music. In both cases McCabe gives an impressive and rewarding performance of these two studies. It is just a pity that the other two in the series ‘Gaudi’ and ‘Aubade’ could not somehow have been squeezed into the programme: there is only 62 minutes of music on this disc.
The final work on this CD is Tuning for orchestra which was composed in 1985 It was a commission by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Andrew Carnegie and also for the European Music Year 1985. It is written for a large orchestra complete with a battery of percussion. The British premiere was given at the Albert Hall in Stirling on 6 August 1985. McCabe has written that the work was inspired by hearing a chamber orchestra tuning up for a performance of Mozart’s Serenade for 13 wind instruments. He noted that by ‘sheer chance they alighted a couple of times on rich and sonorous chords.’ It was this that provided the initial impetus for this work. In some ways Tuning appears like a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ The composer creates blocks of sound for woodwind, then percussion and brass. The piece naturally divides into two sections: a slow-moving opening followed by a rapid toccata making use of fanfares, repeated notes and patterns. It is only at the end of the work that the entire orchestra comes together for the concluding chords.
I found this work immediately approachable in spite of the possible objection that much modern music has been described as sounding like ‘an orchestra tuning up’.
The liner notes have been written by Robert Matthew-Walker and the composer (Tuning). They give a comprehensive account of the all the works. For further information, I encourage the listener to explore Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, ed. George Odam (2007). The insert also includes brief notices of the orchestras, the conductor John Snashall and the composer.
One point of confusion. The rear cover of the CD suggests that all these pieces are ‘World Premiere Recordings’. This is confusing as all the recordings except for Tuning were released on Pye and RCA Red Label LPs. The piano works have also been recorded in recent years by Tamami Honma (Studies, Metier 92071) and Graham Caskle (Fantasy, Metier 92004). I concede that the ‘original’ releases of these works were then (1967 & 1977 respectively) ‘premiere recordings.’ Tuning was acquired from the original master made at the City Hall, Glasgow concert on January 4 1986.
This is an excellent new release from Naxos that should demand the attention of all enthusiasts of British music. It presents two important works by John McCabe that have so far eluded release on CD. It is also a pleasure to hear the composer’s own performance of his piano pieces, his conducting of Tuning and the excellent Symphony No. 1 ‘Elegy’.
Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ (1965)
Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt (1967)
Capriccio (Study No.1) (1969)
Sostenuto (Study No.2) (1969)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Snashall (Symphony)
National Youth Orchestra of Scotland/John McCabe (Tuning)
John McCabe (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.