Featuring Quintets performed by: Roderick Williams(Baritone),David Pyatt(Horn),John McCabe(Piano),and the Sacconi String Quartet.
A new album from NMC arrives on my doorstep,an album of Quintets by composer John McCabe, this was always going to be an excellent listening experience, so I was pretty excited at the opportunity to listen to and review this CD! Aaaah, this was just whats required this morning, as I look out on snow covered hills, an auditory start to the day, from a wonderful composer. Opening the package, unsure what was inside, then, what a delightful surprise – as John McCabe’s name hit me between the musical eyes, so to speak. I have know John’s music for a long time, but these pieces were new to me. So, tearing open the annoying, plastic wrapper, I sat down to listen to the CD, a whole recording of new music, with both excitement and slight trepidation. As always, and as you’d expect from NMC, the quality of production is excellent, from the cover artwork, the beautiful audio through to the informative booklet, with programme notes and biographies, etc.
‘’The Woman by the Sea”, is the first work to focus our musical senses is a piano quintet, performed here by the amazing Sacconi string quartet, with the composer himself at the piano, driving the work along in his own direction. Actually, I always appreciate hearing a recording by the composer of their work, as we get an insight into their creative thinking at that particular moment in their lives, and this he does here, whilst playing in an amazing ensemble of sounds. McCabe’s interests outside music, were very wide, and here we see one of his his particular loves, the cinema, being the inspirational impulse behind this work, directly inspired by the film ‘Kenj Mizoguchi’s Sansho Day’ (1954). I wont go into too much detail here, as I always like to read the notes myself whilst listening to a piece, but suffice to say, it captures the narrative pretty well. Structured in one continuous, through composed form, he creates a mood, of enhancing music, which provides the listener, some inner mind images, by using the ensemble available, to it’s upmost musicianship. From the very first sound of the piano, to the entry, one, by one, of the string quartet, he opens a door, and we enter a soundworld of intense, emotional reflection. From the slow beginning, the work is interspersed with periods of unease, as melodic phrases emerge, then dissipate again. The energy is always threatening to overpower, with it’s frenetic sections, but the music is written in such a way, that all the movement, the ebb and flow, either in rhythmic pulse, or tone, actually sounds so natural. Trying to capture such an emotional story in music alone, without the visuals, can be extremely difficult to bring off for the listener, or audience, but here, McCabe does exactly that – such a craftsmen at work here, excellent stuff!! The human spirit, or condition, and it’s tragedy, a circle of life in fact, is captured, totally, and as the piece finishes, we feel…..well, yes, exactly, the story isn’t finished yet, or is it, life?
“Silver Nocturnes” the title track of the album, which is a quintet for baritone, sung here by the astonishing Roderick Williams, and string quartet. The vocal settings, are of 16th century poems, from the so called ’silver poets’ Henry Howard – “Set Me Whereas the Sun”; Edward Dyer – “The Lowest Trees have Tops”; and Philip Sydney – “My True Love”. Whilst these are obviously the main song settings, McCabe also sets a short extract from a speech by John of Gaunt, from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard 3rd’. The work actually includes a beautiful ‘Interlude’ for strings alone, between the settings of the Dyer and Sidney. This interlude, for me, is worth the price of the disc alone, as such terrific performances do the players give here, winding us around their, well, not their fingers exactly, but certainly their strings and bows – it sounds truly wonderful. Throughout this work, the diction of the words is clear and distinct, which always helps our understanding, when hearing a new work, whilst the accompaniment, which in someways that word doesn’t feel right, I know, as the quartet are an essential part of the music, is brilliantly executed. The voice and string quartet are an ensemble of expression, power, intimacy of thought, in one unit. There is a feeling of a musical journey, a cycle of experiences to share here, with the Richard 3rd words, at the very beginning, returning to close the work. The whole cycle of songs, is absolutely stunning, and every now and again, the hairs on the back of my head, did, stand up – but in a good way. The balance and tone of this piece, and the recording, is certainly a wonder. This piece shows the composer, totally in charge of his creative thoughts – inspired, is what I say here, inspired!
“Horn Quintet’’ is the final work on this recording, with the solo horn being played here by the awesome David Pyatt. After a very short, calm intro, we are then led into a wonderful, lively movement, with some fine, and tight ensemble interplay from everyone on board for this musical journey. Then, interrupted for a moment, or two, we pause, and return to the slow, calm feel – in fact, this is to become almost a theme in itself, fast to slow, to fast, etc. McCabe hints the programme for the work could be a Midsummer Nights dream, with its fleet – footed sections, around sections of dream like beauty. Indeed, a swirling flight of faeries could indeed be conjured up in one’s mind here – so close your eyes, believe and let your imagination flow!! However, all that being said, I think this work doesn’t need any sort of programme at all. Indeed, it easily stands up as a great work of music, and a wonderful addition the repertoire for horn and string quartet, without the need for any other programme – real, or, imagined. Such a well written composition as this, is a real pleasure to listen to, and I can only imagine what the audiences reaction was at the premiere, must have been pretty terrific atmosphere. All in all, a wonderful disc, as I for one, will be giving it a few more plays and I thoroughly recommend it to everyone – enjoy!