GMCD 7369 – Fauvel’s Rondeaux – John McCabe

Linda Merrick (clarinet), Kreutzer Quartet: Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin), Morgan Goff (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)

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The Clarinet – January 2013

I admit that I am always envious of performers who can also compose. Performing music, while affording opportunities for artistic expression is — in the end — an act of interpretation. Composing, however, is where true creative expression resides.
John McCabe (b. 1939) is an accomplished composer form Great Britain who has written in all classical genres, including symphonies, ballet scores, chamber music and concerti for leading soloists such as James Galway. In addition, pianist McCabe has had a successful career as a performer, primarily as a recitalist. He is known in the United Kingdom as an avid interpreter of 20th century English composers such as Alan Rawsthorne and Sir Arnold Bax. His large catalog of compositions is published by Chester Novello.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux, the title of a compact disc of chamber music by McCabe, features the English clarinettist Linda Merrick in works of mixed instrumentation. The title of the CD is taken from a programmatic work by the same name and featured on the CD. On this recording, which presents four works for clarinet, Merrick demonstrates wonderful ability in mastering and interpreting very challenging material. Three of the works are heard here for the first time in commercial release, as is also the case for this version with clarinet/bass clarinet of Fauvel’s Rondeaux.
Moments for clarinet, violin and cello, written in 1964, is a multi-movement work that is played in continuity (all four works on this CD are structured in this way ). Each movement is of Webern-influenced brevity. In a clever structure that J.S. Bach would have enjoyed, the work has a palindrome shape. The last three movements are palindromes of the first three, played in reverse order.
Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano, a work written in 1969, is interesting in that the composer has taken a stance similar to Bartok’s in his Contrasts. Rather than trying to blend the three instruments, McCabe has treated the three instruments as individuals in dialogue. The composer’s unique neo-impressionistic style is quite evident, especially in his tonal and harmonic language.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux, the work that gives this CD its title, was written as a commission by the Verdehr Trio and Michigan State University. Using material first scored by McCabe for a ballet, Fauvel’s Rondeaux is a programmatic work based on a medieval satire. The listener can hear different roles being portrayed by the instrumentalists including an effective donkey portrayed by the clarinet. The clarinettist must be able to play the bass clarinet with comfort as it is demanding in its own right. Merrick handles this tack with fluency and aplomb.
The Clarinet Quintet ‘La Donna’ is the most recent work on this CD. Written in 2010-2011, this quintet was commissioned by Merrick and colleagues in the Kreutzer Quartet. It was first performed in June of 2011. The work is a study in contrasts. The Instruments again reflect McCabe’s desire to show differences in timbre and tonal color rather than attempting to blend the forces.
I am impressed by many facets on this recording, including Merrick`s playing. Her sound is pleasingly focused and fluid and she does great credit to the clarinet made by Howarth of London. Some of the loud passages seem a bit forced — easy to do on the clarinet — bat overall, I found her playing well polished and intimate. I enjoyed that her interpretations allow the composer’s voice to be heard without interference.
All the musicians on this album are fine players in their own right. I especially enjoy the musicianship of Cellist Neil Heydes, a member of the Kreutzer Quartet. Special kudos must go to the splendid job done by the recording engineer Jonathan Haskell. His careful placement of microphones captures the sound of all the instruments with clarity and refinement, especially so with the clarinet. I, for one, appreciate the care taken in creating such delicate balances between instruments and their inherent acoustic peculiarities.

American Record Guide – January/February 2013

In the early 1970s, British pianist John McCabe (b. 1939) was one of several European composers who abandoned serialism for a posttonal idiom that combined sophisticated craft with meaningful statements. Here, Royal Northern College of Music professor and administrator Linda Merrick leads several London musicians in a recital of McCabe’s clarinet chamber music that ranges from his early years to his most recent efforts.
The program consists of the Movements for Clarinet, Violin, and Cello (1969); the Sonata for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (1969); Fauvel’s Rondeaux (1996) for clarinet, violin, and piano after the illuminated medieval musical satire; and the clarinet quintet La Donna (2011), commissioned by Merrick and the Kreutzer Quartet, which appears with her on this recording. The music is utterly modernist, weaving a densely chromatic language through tense counterpoint and solo interjections; and sometimes the composer seems to wander without quite knowing the destination. Even so, the ideas are worthy, the themes are personal, and the gestures are direct.
The concert has earnestness, but it lacks brilliance and refinement. The strings are energetic but also weak and hollow, and although Shorr draws an array of color from the piano, the recording makes him appear strangely distant. Merrick resembles most British clarinetists: an engaging personality, an unusual timbre that underlines the outer edge of the sound rather than the inner core, and careless fundamentals. Her soft playing is alluring and intense, but her loud playing is spread and unpleasant; and she pairs dependable fingers with wild tonguing and a patchy legato.

Clarinet & Saxophone – Autumn 2012

I really liked this CD; it made me want to rush out, buy the music and find some consenting string players and a pianist. Reality rapidly set in of course, there being no way I could possibly approach Linda Merrick’s firm, fluid, authoritative sounds and unobtrusive virtuosity. Like Thea King for the previous generation, she has done British composers proud, her 16 CDs including no less than 35 commissions and first performances, on top of busy academic activities. John McCabe has an equally impressive CV, with works in every category plus a career as concert pianist and writer on such diverse composers as Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Alan Rawsthorne – another northerner whose music shares something of McCabe’s clean, vigorous, approachable quality. Of his celebrated Manchester contemporaries, one could say he is perhaps a little less stony than Birtwistle, more eclectic than Maxwell Davies – post-modern without ever having been fully modern.
McCabe has not neglected the clarinet. This CD includes music spanning over 40 years, from the Movements and Sonata of 1969 to the Quintet, premiered lat year. He mentions outside references (Faulkner, Kubrick’s 2001, Marlowe’s Edward II) though we are not told who ‘la donna’ of the quintet is (perhaps Merrick herself?) There are also (not included here) the rather well known ‘Three Pieces’ for clarinet and piano and ‘Two Bagatelles’ for clarinet duet. The quintet and the recent ‘Fauvel’s Rondeaux’ (which features the bass clarinet quite extensively) are, to my ear, the most exciting music on the disc, both being highly varied but consistently interesting, with moments of great beauty and others of considerable ferocity. But all the pieces for trio would make excellent programme company for earlier masterworks by Brahms, Bartok, Stravinsky etc., and as for the new quintet, it deserves to get plenty of performances.
John Payair

Musicweb International – July 2012

I first discovered the music of John McCabe in an old plastic box outside Hughes Second Hand Bookshop in Llandudno – circa 1975. Amongst many vinyl records there was a copy of the EMI recording of the Chagall Windows. This record was marked up ‘Not for Sale’ so I have always assumed that it was someone’s review copy. I remember getting it home and being rather disappointed. The music seemed oddly dissonant and far removed from Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending which I had also bought at the same shop. However a few years later I heard a couple of McCabe’s organ pieces which I thoroughly enjoyed. When the Chagall Windowswas re-released on CD I bought a copy – one again second-hand. This time I appreciated it and began to understand the composer’s musical language. Over the years I have heard a fair number of works from McCabe’s pen, and generally I have liked what I have heard. As an aside, my favourite piece by him is Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band.
John McCabe has been reasonably well served by the recording industry. Dutton Epoch has released a couple of excellent CDs dedicated to his concerted pieces, including two piano concertos. Hyperion has offered his Symphony (Of Time and the River). His major ballet scores Arthur Pendragon and Edward II are both currently available. Many more pieces large and small are in the various catalogues and reward searching out. Some works will only be located on vinyl by the dedicated collector.
The present CD of chamber works is therefore a major addition to the repertoire. I have glanced through the composer’s website discography and believe that only one of these works, Fauvel’s Rondeaux is currently available elsewhere – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7125. The present version of this work makes use of the bass clarinet.
I have never listened to any of these works before, so I guess that I come to them with a largely innocent ear. I am grateful to the excellent liner notes by the composer.
I believe that 63 minutes of clarinet tone is a lot for the average listener to cope with at one sitting, so I suggest taking these pieces, one at a time. They are presented on the disc in chronological order: I recommend listening to the works thus.
Movements is an excellent little work that provides a fine introduction to John McCabe’s ‘early’ chamber music style. The seven very short ‘movements’ were originally composed in 1964 when the composer was about 25 years old. They were dedicated to the Gabrieli Ensemble. The inspiration for the work came from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. The full sense of this book -I have not read it – is, apparently, only revealed after finishing it. The progress of the music is in the form of a palindrome, though to be honest, without the score I would probably not have noticed. The last three sections, an allegro agitato, an allegretto and the concluding lento are palindromes of the first three movements played in reverse order. The middle section is an adagio and represents the literal heart of the piece.
McCabe notes that a ‘free variation technique’ is used to create the ‘melodic’ interest in this work. The composer has avoided the danger of allowing the constructive elements of Movements to reduce it to some kind of pedantic exercise. The sound-world may be fairly and squarely in the serialist style but he never allows this to spoil the invention and musicality of the piece. The work was revised in 1966. I am not sure where the 1969 date in the sleeve-notes comes from.
A few years later, McCabe wrote a Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano. It was a commission by Brocklehurst-Whiston Amalgamated for the 1969 Macclesfield Arts Festival. The dedication was to the Gervase de Peyer, William Pleeth and Peter Wallfisch trio who gave the first performance. I did wonder why the composer chose to call the work a Sonata rather than a ‘Trio’, however he explains that ‘he felt that this approach, intent on treating the instruments as individuals in a dialogue rather than a single unit, would be more in keeping with a less traditional, though equally abstract style.’
This single movement work is divided into five sections. Once again the middle ‘tristamente’ is the heart of the work. The opening lento is recalled in the concluding andante. There is exciting music in both the ‘allegro’ and the ‘vivo’ sections. I do not believe that a palindrome has been used here – though the formal working out of this Sonata is certainly well-balanced and turns upon the central section. John McCabe has suggested that the inspiration for this work was partly derived from ‘a sense of loneliness and space conveyed by sections of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This mood is well-achieved, although offset by some dramatic and often exciting music.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux is a massively impressive work. It was conceived for clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) violin and piano. The work is cast as a ‘gigantic’ rondo with a twist. In a classical rondo the material is presented as, for example, ABACADA. A is the main theme and B, C and D are episodes that are usually in contrast to it. But the main theme is all important. The twist is that McCabe has provided a dynamic, powerful opening melody which is repeated as in classical rondo. However, the episodes here form ‘the substance of the music’ rather than a commentary on it.
The work is seen as a pendant to McCabe’s great ballet score Edward II where there appears a group of jugglers, acrobats, clowns and musicians. They are led by a certain Fauvel.
The present work manages to balance the elements of ‘entertainment and the gradually darkening world of conspiracy, lust and power mania’. It achieves this contrast brilliantly. The musical language is at once approachable and challenging. It is an exciting work with some moments of unease and discomfort for the listener.
Fauvel’s Rondeaux was commissioned by the Verdehr Trio and Michigan State University. It was composed during 1995/96.
The latest work on this CD is the Clarinet Quintet: La Donna. This was commissioned by Linda Merrick and the Kreutzer Quartet and was first performed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on June 15 2011. The quintet does appear to be a little bit of a pot-pourri of styles. Fundamentally lyrical and always approachable, this is music that explores a diverse range of musical devices. From plainsong melody, dance music, hints (and only hints) of minimalist textures, jazzy interludes and even ‘pop’ the composer throws idea after idea at the listener. It is largely uplifting music, however there are some reflective moments in the score. The conclusion is a riot of sound. It may not be fair to say that the latest work is best – but I certainly feel that this is a fine piece of music that will, I hope, take up its place in the clarinet quintet repertoire.
I cannot fault the playing on this disk. All the soloists and the chamber ensemble play this music with flair, concentration and obvious pleasure. I mentioned the excellent liner-notes by the composer. The sound quality is excellent and consistently reveals the clarity of the instrumentation.
I enjoyed every work on this CD, although I have to say that the Quintet and the Fauvel’s Rondeaux impressed me most. Both works exhibit an impressive understanding of form – one a ‘traditional’ rondo and the other appearing to be largely through composed.
John France

The Musician – Summer 2012

Masterful recording of McCabe’s finest
Featuring four adventurous pieces, this album allows its principal players Linda Merrick (clarinet), Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Neil Heyde (cello) and Aaron Shorr (Piano) to visit a fascinating breadth of styles. The First, Movements, is based upon a palindromic shape, while the Sonata treats its instruments very much as individuals. The title piece reflects its origins in the medieval Roman de Fauvel, with its contrasting subject matter of satire and frivolity. Add an exceptional quality recording and a first-rate performance of Clarinet Quintet La Donna, and this is an outstanding album.

International Record Review – June 2012

It’s always a pleasure to listen to John McCabe’s music. Its elegant craftsmanship and expressional invitation unfailingly take hold, bidding that we listen and become involved. So it is with Movements, seven of them playing continuously and scored for clarinet, violin and cello. Each section is brief and each opens the ears and cues the imagination. McCabe (bom in 1939 in the Huyton area of Liverpool) composed Movements in 1964 as a ‘reaction’ to William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. The very engaging music seems somewhat experimental (maybe), even displaying a dalliance with the then avant-garde, and formally is set as a palindrome.
From five years later, the Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano is a single, 13-minute movement of varied moods, predominantly dark and isolated, with fast sections angular and discursive. The pianist is sometimes required to play inside the piano, creating a surreal effect. McCabe informs us of another extra-musical connection:  ‘the sense of space and loneliness conveyed by sections of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey …’.
The other two works, both lasting for nearly 20 minutes, are more recent creations. fauvel’s Rondeaux (completed in 1996) is for clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and piano. The inspiration is from the Medieval Roman de Fauvel: a donkey (Fauvel) becomes Lord of the World. Opening in sustained energetic and aggressive style, this ‘gigantic rondo’ of a piece is allusive to ‘court entertainment and the gradually darkening world of conspiracy, lust and power-mania …’. It’s a powerful and compelling piece, a ‘satellite work’ to McCabe’s earlier score for the ballet Edward II, and is quite disturbing at times.
From just last year, the Clarinet Quintet, ‘La Donna’ is richly expressive (some of the lyrical writing has an autumnal quality recalling Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet) and bristling with incident, music that is always about something and going somewhere. It completes an impressive recital of striking music in fine performances, recorded in the presence of the composer.
Colin Anderson – Mai 2012

Mit Autorität – Der englische Komponist John McCabe wird hier mit Kammermusikwerken vorgestellt.
John McCabe ist ein Komponist, der mitten im Leben steht. Seit 1997 hat der 1939 in der Nähe von Liverpool Gebürtige einen Internetauftritt, er beherrscht Computer-Notensatz – kurz, er ist stets am Puls der Zeit, und gleich wo man sich in England auf wichtigen Veranstaltungen aufhält, er ist schon da. Lange Zeit war John McCabe nicht nur als Komponist aktiv; er hat sich auch als Pianist (u. a. sämtlicher Klaviersonaten Joseph Haydns) und im akademischen Bereich (u. a. sieben Jahre als Leiter des London College of Music) profiliert. Wie Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr und Peter Maxwell Davies studierte er am Royal Manchester (heute Northern) College of Music und vervollständigte seine Studien dann an der Münchner Hochschule für Musik, wo er die Musik Karl Amadeus Hartmanns kennenlernte. Zu seinen ersten Erfolgen gehörten ‘Variations on a theme by Karl Amadeus Hartmann’ für Orchester, ‘Notturni ed Alba’ für Sopran und Orchester und ‘Chagall Windows’, ebenfalls für Orchester. Seither hat er (die große Oper ausgenommen) in jedem Genre wichtige Kompositionen geschaffen, viele von ihnen liegen (wie man McCabes Website entnehmen kann) auch auf CD vor.Nun also Kammermusik mit Klarinette aus einem Zeitrahmen von fast fünfzig Jahren. Vom Beginn seiner Karriere, aus dem Jahr 1964 (revidiert 1966) stammt ‘Movements’ für Klarinette, Violine und Violoncello. Das siebensätzige Werk ist von insgesamt palindromartiger Struktur, mit einem zentralen ‘Adagio’ und zwei ‘Lento’-Ecksätzen. McCabes Stil ist von einer klaren freien Atonalität, die Stimmung eher divertimentoartig denn intellektuell transzendiert. 1969 entstand die Sonate für Klarinette, Cello und Klavier, ‚Sonate‘ genannt, weil die Behandlung des thematischen Materials weniger dialogisch denn aus der Natur der einzelnen Instrumente abgeleitet und durch diese miteinander verbunden ist. Nähe und Entfernung (besonders Entfernung) ist für das Konzept der Musik von besonderer Bedeutung, mit poetischen und kraftvollen Momenten für alle drei Instrumente. ‘Fauvel’s Rondeaux’ für Klarinette, Violine und Klavier, eine Art Nebenprodukt zu dem 1995 entstandenen Ballett ‘Edward II’ (es erlebt hier bereits seine zweite CD-Einspielung), bezeichnet McCabe in seinen sehr erhellenden Booklet-Informationen als ein gigantisches Rondo, in dem die Eröffnungsmusik als Ritornellmaterial genutzt wird und die Episoden nicht als Kontrast sondern als zentrale Substanz der Musik zu verstehen sind. Wie dreißig Jahre zuvor ist McCabes Komposition klug disponierend, doch nie expressive Aspekte in die zweite Reihe rückend; im Gegenteil ist der im Ballett vorgegebene Spannungsbogen hier auf ganz eigene Weise weitererkundet. Die jüngste Komposition ist das Klarinettenquintett ‘La Donna’ (2010-11), weniger als einen Monat vor der CD-Einspielung am Royal Northern College of Music durch die Interpreten auf dieser CD uraufgeführt, eine ungemein dichte, spannungsvolle ebenfalls einsätzige Komposition.
Womit auf die Autorität dieser CD-Einspielung zu kommen wäre. John McCabe hat für die CD die ‚musical supervision‘ übernommen und so können wir davon ausgehen, dass, was wir hier hören, dem entspricht, was der Komponist intendierte. Da auch die Bookletnotizen auf den Komponisten zurückgehen, haben wir hier eine Produktion, die runder nicht sein könnte. Die Klarinettistin Linda Merrick bietet zusammen mit ihren Partnern Aaron Shorr (Klavier) sowie dem Kreutzer Quartett (Peter Sheppard Skærved, Mihailo Trandafilovski, Morgan Goff und Neil Hyde), als Ensemble oder als Einzelmusikern überzeugendste Interpretationen, auch wenn ich gestehen muss, dass mich ‘Fauvel’s Rondeaux’ in der 2002 entstandenen Einspielung mit der Fibonacci Sequence (Dutton) noch einen Hauch mehr überzeugt – vielleicht weil das Werk hier noch spannungsvoller, noch dichter musiziert wurde als jetzt in Manchester. Doch sind das Beckmessereien auf allerhöchstem Niveau.
Jürgen Schaarwächter, 10.05.2012