horizontal line

A point of order to start: I wrote the biographical introduction to Toccata Classics’ CD but otherwise had no involvement in its production. The disc presents the major part of McCabe’s valedictory recital given in Presteigne on 29 August 2010. Devised by the composer as a retrospective of his performing history, it featured composers of special import to him – Haydn, Ravel, Saxton, Schubert – as well as premieres by Casken and Liverpool-born Emily Howard, and a work he considers one of his own finest, Tenebrae. Toccata’s disc omits Haydn’s G minor Sonata (Hob XVI:44) and Saxton’s Chacony, as McCabe’s recordings of these are available elsewhere, and opens with the closing item, Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784, concluding with Valses nobles et sentimentales and the encore, Bridge’s Heart’s Ease.

McCabe’s playing in Presteigne showed why he has been a key performer for over 50 years. His Schubert was more muscular and robust than that of many rivals (Uchida on Philips seems superficial by comparison), with no loss of sensitivity. The large opening Allegro giusto had a gripping symphonic momentum, the central Andante was beguilingly lyrical and the concluding Allegro vivace perfectly paced; overall, one of the finest accounts I have heard.

Like Ogdon, McCabe brought a composer’s as well as an executant’s sensibilities to his interpretations, providing a depth and range of response not often matched by non-composing virtuosi. This quality was fully evident in his account of the Valses and the two premieres. Howard’s Sky and Water, inspired by Escher’s famous etching, was rendered with delicacy and feeling.

Of greater moment for McCabe fans will be his performance of Tenebrae, written for Barry Douglas and previously recorded superbly by Tamami Honma. This was the highlight of the recital: McCabe’s magical reading was quite different to Honma’s, slightly slower and with richer shades of darkness.

On Quartz’s new release, McCabe the composer is the focus in works for one and two pianos, played on the whole superbly by Piano 4 Hands. Three are new to disc, the jewel being the duet Upon Entering a Painting, a fascinating tone poem inspired by McCabe’s close-up viewing of Rothko paintings, depicting his reactions rather than the images themselves. The Two Scenes from ‘Edward II’ are great fun, and the Study and Sonata are also most welcome, especially given the composer’s long aversion to the sonata genre (something McCabe touches upon in his notes).

Tong and Hasegawa provide compelling accounts of all five works, although Hasegawa’s version of the Third Study, Gaudi (1970) feels stiff compared with the composer’s own (British Music Society BMS24CD). In Basse Danse, too, the duo is outgunned by the composer, with Honma (Dutton CDSA 6881).

Quartz’s Henry Wood Hall recording has bright, clear sound with depth. The acoustic of St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, is flatter but faithfully reproduced by Michael Ponder for Toccata. All pianophiles should investigate these discs, not just to mark the retirement from performance of one of Britain’s foremost musical personalities. Highly recommended.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Piano International, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing