JOHN MCCABE: Ballet Suite No. 1, “Arthur Pendragon”; Piano Concerto No. 1; Pilgrim – John McCabe, piano/ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Christopher Austin, conductor – Dutton

by | Apr 10, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JOHN MCCABE: Ballet Suite No. 1, “Arthur Pendragon”; Piano Concerto No. 1; Pilgrim – John McCabe, piano/ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Christopher Austin, conductor – Dutton CDLX 7179, 72:43 ***1/2 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

Though the notes to this release continually refer to John McCabe as “eclectic”, I for one don’t really hear his music in those terms. McCabe has certainly absorbed influences, but what composer hasn’t? His music is tonal, but almost in a sort of apologetic manner, as if he wishes it really wasn’t and tries to do everything he can to cover it up. This is most evident in the first suite from his ballet Arthur Pendragon, a rehashing of that most English of tales, and one attempted by almost every British composer who ever lived. McCabe takes it head on, but if you didn’t know what this music was about you might as well think it a score from some film like On the Waterfront (with apologies to Bernstein). I like parts of it, but as so many ballet scores seem to do, this one cries out for the associated visuals and the story in order to make it really hit home. Otherwise we are stuck with a very nervous and dissonant, brassy score such as Prokofiev might have written.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 was a work from the late sixties that McCabe actually premiered, and he plays it here to great effect. The work is more disjointed in terms of its orchestral groupings, and the piano weaves its way in and out of the sometimes very mysterious and esoteric textures. Often it seems as if the piano is purely obbligato in nature, but I must confess that the more I listened to this piece the more I liked it. Yet the best thing on this disc is surely the double string orchestra work called Pilgrim, after Bunyan’s seminal work that has also had a vast effect on composers, particularly British ones. Though themes from Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony are supposedly quoted, I was still most reminded of Michael Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. This is a very fine work, basically slow in tempo with two bursts of contrapuntal activity that makes good developmental use of the three or four principal themes. The writing shows a good acquaintance with string scoring, and the two orchestras are used to nice antiphonal effect.

So not bad, all in all, though I must insist that McCabe takes some repeated and careful listening in order to fully appreciate what is going on. The BBC Scots play very well, pros all, and Dutton provides decently spaced and luxuriant sound for all concerned.

— Steven Ritter
 

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