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John McCabe, Janáček & Dvořák at The Proms

Janáček, arr. Talich The Cunning Little Vixen - suite
John McCabe Horn Concerto 'Rainforest IV' London premiere
Dvořák Symphony No.9 in E minor, 'From the New World'

David Pyatt horn BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jac van Steen

Prom 67: 5 September 2009 Royal Albert Hall

This Prom was a good showcase for the BBCNOW and Jac van Steen impressed with the sensitivity of his interpretations and his control of the orchestra. For people who don't know the Vixen masterpiece, Talich's suite is an attractive introduction to the sound world of the opera, and it sounded well in this fastidious account.

The New World symphony was given with attention to detail and careful moulding of phrases. However, from good side stalls seats not far from the orchestra, it was disconcerting to have loud brass and percussion moments ricocheting back again in echo from diagonally opposite; the infamous Albert Hall echo has been tamed but not eliminated.

Of special interest was a major new work by John McCabe, who is currently celebrating his 70th birthday with composing projects and numerous concerts to attend. The horn concerto is an extended work, some twenty-five minutes, which eschews contest between soloist and orchestra. It made a limited effect in the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall, the soloist sometimes rather absorbed in the orchestra, and a climactic unstopped final note from the horn (a reminder of the muted beginning) did not achieve the big intended effect as explained by the composer in interview at a pre-event with students at the Royal College of Music behind the Albert Hall. It sounded better on the BBC transmissiion (available afterwards on BBC iPlayer) and maybe a studio recording would bring out its qualities at the best?

McCabe had talked with me some days before at Cadogan Hall, where the newest of his piano studies, a substantial Homage to Tippett, had been given - a piece which draws on familiar phrases from some of Tippett's earlier works. I have several of these Studies, and I like No 10 Tunstall Chimes, a tribute to Ravel, inspired by a peal of bells and drawing on harmonies in the Sonatine.

"70" means "33" to me, McCabe says - "I've finally stopped being 32." He listed some of his commitments, quite a whirl of travel with opportunities to meet fans, including a 3-day festival at Manchester University and a week in Haifa playing his first piano concerto with the Symphony Orchestra there. For the future, "I will actually be "retiring" from regular piano playing after the summer of 2010, to have more time off, more time to concentrate on composing, and indeed a bit of time to sit back and take stock".

As renowned concert pianist, John McCabe has slimmed his formerly large repertoire, confining himself to his own music and Haydn, which he pioneered in LPs of all the sonatas which I had long treasured. Those will have inspired many of us, amateurs as well as professionals, to tackle that oeuvre as a whole. However, times change and one can get left behind. He told me that he has not become interested in the period piano movement - "I prefer Haydn played on a modern piano, partly because the modern piano exists because of his music, and it doesn't benefit from being put under a glass case - - if I re-recorded them, I would still do Haydn on a modern piano - - the narrow-mindedness of some of the authentic folk gets me"... He even recorded Herbert Howell's Lambert's Clavichord on piano!

Appointed C.B.E. in 1983 for his services to British music, it is understandable that John McCabe admits that he hasn't really kept up with the German and European scene. He deplores the fact that some countries look after their composers better than ours does; "our soloists (and foreign soloists who come here) hardly touch the stuff, and if you look at the programmes performed abroad by British orchestras it is a shameful situation".

He enjoyed a residency at the 3 Choirs Festival in Hereford a few weeks back with "a couple of new pieces"; re. his choral music, McCabe had been amazed by the high standards of some of todays choirs which, to his disbelief, turned out to be non-professional. Presteigne Festival was soon to come (performances of his piano quintet piece The Woman by the Sea with both the Pavao and Sacconi Quartets) and still more, London premières in the autumn of two recent symphonies (Edward II and Labyrinth), a lot of performances of a piano duet work Upon entering a Painting I written for the Tong/Hasegawa duo (who have a festival of their own in Bristol next month) and especially a concert at Cadogan Hall which Musical Pointers will cover...

John told me that he thinks anniversaries are good opportunities to focus on neglected composers or works and very useful at that. "The trouble is that they are then neglected again!" He find young composers quite exciting to encourage "if I feel they've got something vibrant to say". The difficulty is that "once they've had their go, another lot comes along and squeezes them out. As to education, the problem there is that hordes of people come out of universities and whatnot with pieces of paper "proving" they are composers..."

With the kind cooperation of his publishers, I have this month been able to enjoy reading John McCabe's seminal book Alan Rawsthorne - Portrait of a Composer (1999-OUP) and also to listen with pleasure to CDs of McCabe's recording of Rawsthorne's complete piano music and several McCabe impressive orchestral works, including the composer's own account of his first piano concerto (Dutton). He confirmed that "writing about music is something I enjoy - the Rawsthorne was something very personal to me".

The portrait concert at Cadogan Hall next week promises to be an exciting event. John will play Haydn's Variations in F minor and his own The Woman by the Sea for piano and string quartet, and The King's Singers will give McCabe's Cartography, The Lily-white Rose [world première] and Scenes in America deserta.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also Bob Briggs with John McCabe - interview in MusicWeb Seventy Not Out !