John McCabe / John Snashall / London Philharmonic Orchestra / National Youth Orchestra of Scotland

John McCabe: Composer, Pianist, Conductor

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The Symphony No. 1 ("Elegy") of British composer John McCabe was championed on its appearance in 1965 by none less than John Barbirolli, but neither it nor McCabe's other compositions have been much heard on recordings unconnected with the composer. The recordings here date from between 1967 and 1986 and have been reasonably well remastered; the music has never appeared before on CD, and the final Tuning, composed and recorded in 1986, marks McCabe's only appearance to date on recordings as a conductor. That work is the most fun of the lot: a rigorous orchestral development rooted in the sonority of an orchestra tuning, or, rather, reaching a consonant sound after having tuned. The subtitle "Elegy" for the ambitious and youthful Symphony No. 1 does not really give the flavor of the work, which superimposes highly extended tonality and dense orchestral writing on a variant of classical sonata form over three movements. McCabe is best known as a pianist, and the three Lisztian (although generally atonal) works here give an idea of his ability to adapt modern musical languages to a virtuoso's role. Recommended for those interested in the period when British music embraced modernism without ever quite embracing serialism (although McCabe did write some serialist music). Generally the album makes one want to hear more of McCabe's fairly large output of orchestral music. For those worried about the difference in level between the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Symphony No. 1 and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in Tuning, don't be; the latter performance is technically fluent and enters into the playful spirit of the work.

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