Hyperion Records

Concerto for flute and orchestra
composer
1989/90

Recordings
'McCabe: Symphony No. 4 & Flute Concerto' (CDA67089)
McCabe: Symphony No. 4 & Flute Concerto
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Details
Movement 1. Part 01: Allegro vivo
Movement 1. Part 02: Allegro vivo
Movement 1. Part 03: Maestoso. Adagio. Moderato
Movement 1. Part 04: Andante flessibile. Quasi Allegretto. Moderato.
Movement 1. Part 05: Come prima
Movement 1. Part 06: Vivo
Movement 1. Part 07: Moderato. Andante. Quasi Allegretto
Movement 1. Part 08: Lento con moto
Movement 1. Part 09: Allegro deciso
Movement 1. Part 10: Andante

Concerto for flute and orchestra
The concerto is cast in a single unbroken movement, which nonetheless divides into three broad spans: a long opening ‘Allegro vivo’ which presents and develops the concerto’s basic material; a diverse, slower middle section with several changes of tempo and metre; and a generally quicker final section with two slower episodes and a slow epilogue. Musically, the work is built almost entirely from the intervals of a semitone and (to a lesser extent) the whole tone. Many of the themes proceed in semitones and tones, while others rise or fall to rest on notes a semitone or tone away (albeit one or more octaves removed). Although clearly identifiable key centres do not occur in the same way as in, say, Of Time and the River, there is no suggestion of atonality – rather the dissonance is absorbed into the orchestral textures and set in relief by the euphony of the flute’s principal solos. The stormy and dramatic profile, however, where the soloist is after several chases finally overwhelmed and rendered silent, has led commentators to wonder at possible programmes for the work, such as Orpheus’s vain attempt to ‘tame the Furies’, or Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx – a not inapposite subject for a flute concerto.

The composer denies any such motive behind the music even though the concerto is, indeed, rich in imagery and could be approached as a tone poem with solo flute. The starting point was his observing waves and breakers on the Cornish shore; these suggested the playful, dancing texture heard at the very outset in harp, strings and percussion. The main line occurs in the harp’s jogging motion on the semitone F – E, with its final slip up a tone to G to form a melodic motif.

The texture is filled out by busy if wispy figurations in the strings rooted by the basses to F sharp (the semitonal relationship again). The solo flute enters with runs from D up nearly two octaves to a high C sharp, and from A sharp to D leading to a theme which is in essence a chromatic descent from D to G flat (the enharmonic equivalent of A sharp).

The high Fs and the flattened D, B and A (and by implication E) suggest F minor as the key centre, although this is contradicted after the soloist’s second appearance by the three orchestral flutes, directed to be spaced out from left to right amongst the orchestra and which function as commentators on or echoes of the soloist. These enter with and develop new versions of a previous theme, right-way-up and in inversion. These opening three episodes repeat and are extended, as if slowly moving away from that initial vision on the Cornish beach. A new theme occurs in whole-tones with the timpani (on G sharp).

As the flute embellishes one of the subjects, elements of the opening texture, transferred to the winds are transformed, adding tension to the music. Over increasingly aggressive and powerful developments of one theme and the entire opening texture, the flute nervously toys with semitones and tritones in semiquavers overhead. The strings take up and transform different motifs in close polyphony. As the pursuit gathers in the orchestra, the solo flute runs with increasing agitation hither and thither in a line dominated by semiquaver repeated notes. However much the flute endeavours to move away from one of the themes and its developments and satellites, the orchestra tags along with unwavering purpose, altering the opening texture eventually out of all recognition in a ‘Maestoso’ outburst of naked threat, dominated by the brass and bells. After this, the flute muses uneasily in a pastoral interlude, its solo line subtly recapitulating much of the preceding thematic material, and at first with only the oboes, vibraphone and violins for company. Gradually the orchestral textures fill out, and the flute’s line seems to regain its composure. After a brief but unthreatening climax, the orchestral flutes return, echoing the soloist, after which the flute initiates a new ‘Moderato’, very chromatic, which spreads rapidly through the wind choir. A wash of percussion dispels the accumulated tension, and the flute intones a simple, dance-like tune, almost the embodiment of innocence, ‘Andante flessibile’.

The newness of this theme is underlined by its construction largely in fourths and thirds, and it represents the quiet heart of the concerto, worlds away from the semitonal strife that closed the opening section. This theme, which grows a ‘Quasi Allegretto’ tail, and the undulation alternate gently until a cadenza-like passage for the soloist, leads into the third main section of the concerto.

For the most part, the mood of the new section, ‘Vivo’, is playful, although the trumpets hint at darker motives behind the foreground. The flute intones thoughtfully a new motif in sixths and sevenths which falls from A through nearly an octave to B, and proceeds to devote its attention to its development until an abrupt reappearance of a previous theme’s rhythm in a mix of E and E flat gives the flute cause for concern, voiced in quivering high B flats. By way of escape, the flute invokes an undulating ‘Moderato’, but in trying to move away in a new direction, ‘Andante’, with a swift chromatic line derived from another theme in which the three orchestral flutes amongst others join, cannot break free, leaving only a macabre rattle in tuned percussion. Sadly, the flute invokes its ‘cadenza’ theme, ‘Lento con moto’, but this too is taken away from it by the other winds. A highly varied recapitulation of the opening now starts up, ‘Allegro deciso’, led by the flute as if determined to face its enemy. The attempt is vain, as the flute cannot match the orchestra’s power and is harried at every turn. The pursuit is swift and the soloist is finally silenced and overwhelmed. After the final climax, the soloist sadly reprises one of the subjects on the alto flute, repeating it over and over as it quietly reduces to inaudibility, as if Pan, having plucked the reed Syrinx had been metamorphosed into, now plays as an instrument what he could not possess in human form.

from notes by Guy Rickards 1999

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