John McCabe was better known as a pianist than as a composer, and one supposes this album (originally released by the British Music Society in 1998) on which he played his own piano music was issued as a commemoration of his career after his death in 2015. But it actually suggests that his music is due for a revival. McCabe went through several stages, pre- and post-serialist as well as the dreaded animal itself, on display here in the works in the middle of the program. But there's a distinct musical personality running through the whole set, and it's one that encompasses influences from Rachmaninov (about whom McCabe wrote a book) and Vaughan Williams -- not names often heard in this context -- and merges them with more contemporary structural concerns. The highlights, and those that display the virtuosic aspect of McCabe's musical personality best, are the two sets of variations that frame the program. The Haydn Variations, composed in 1983, are counted as one of McCabe's strongest works, and they are indeed absorbing, clearly rooted in variation form (of the paired, alternating sort), but not displaying clear boundaries between the variations. The Haydn theme (from the Piano Sonata No. 32 in G minor, Hob. 16/44) does not appear until well over halfway into the work. This device too comes from Rachmaninov (in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), but it's treated in original ways that have enough to keep listeners returning to the work. At the very least, this album makes the case for continuing explorations of this neglected composer.
John McCabe: Piano Music Review
by James Manheim