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First recordings of two powerful works from the pen of one of our major composers, John McCabe, who is celebrating his sixtieth birthday this year. Of Time and the River (the title is taken from Thomas Wolfe's novel) is actually the published title of McCabe's Fourth Symphony, written in 1993/4 to a commission by the BBC. The Flute Concerto was written for James Galway in 1989/90 and he gave the first performance of it in 1990 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra who commissioned the work. Here it is played by the outstanding young flautist Emily Beynon in her first recording for Hyperion.
The Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the BBC as part of an exchange project with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the premiere being given in Melbourne by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (with whom McCabe has had a long and fruitful association) under Vernon Handley on 16 March 1995. The British premiere was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 May 1995 under David Atherton (replacing Eduardo Mata, who had died in a plane crash earlier that year).
The form of the symphony is cyclic: the two movements chart a tonal course from a swift-moving, positive D major, ‘Allegro deciso’, to a bleak A flat (tonally the most remote point from D), reaching a state of inertia at the close of the first movement. The second movement begins, ‘Largo’, in almost complete stasis and gradually increases in tempo, returning to the initial ‘Allegro deciso’ as the key circles back to D major (with a recapitulation of the opening section). A six-bar coda marked ‘Mesto’ concludes the work, however, in a questioning A flat. “I wanted to ask a question” the composer commented at the time of the British premiere. “I don’t know what the question is, but after having re-established D as the main key I wanted deliberately to be ambiguous, to say ‘It’s not just about D, it’s also about A flat’, about the positive as well as the negative”.
Time is the other key element of the work’s construction. McCabe intentionally (and unusually, since he does not normally plan pieces in such detail in advance) set out to write a symphony where the tempo gradually decreases to a central point of stasis and then gradually increases in pace to the close, without recourse to simple rallentandi or accelerandi but with the actual changes in pulse imperceptible point-by-point to the listener. The composer achieves this by keeping attention focused on the foreground activity where groups of interrelated tempi combine in the upper parts, so that the underlying pulse can quietly step up or down a gear in the bass. At times these ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ speeds appear to run together, at others they seem to run counter to each other. In his preface to the score, the composer suggests an optical equivalent for this effect: “Who hasn’t experienced that strange feeling of two different speeds of time happening concurrently – for instance, the sensation that, while sitting on a train passing another, the second train is moving backwards even when one knows it is going in the same direction as oneself?” Trains, incidentally, ‘are a recurrent leitmotif’ in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Of Time and the River, which McCabe started reading at an advanced stage of the symphony’s production. While there is no direct connection between novel and symphony, the shared temporal concerns suggested to the composer the use of Wolfe’s title. “After all,” he has remarked, “it’s a more interesting one and ‘Symphony No. 4’ has been used before!”
The symphony opens vigorously without preamble, octave Ds thumped in piano, timpani, cellos and basses, followed by an ostinato built on the first five notes of the D major scale, but with the fourth (G) sharpened as a tritone (G sharp). This is answered by a broken ostinato on another tritone, A–E flat, prefiguring (at the interval of a fifth above) the first movement’s tonal progression of D to A flat, also encapsulated in the figures on timpani and trumpets that propel the initial development of the opening material forward.
The intervals of the tritone (the medieval diabolus in musica), third and whole tone are the primary building blocks of the symphony, recurring constantly throughout the musical fabric.
What sounds like a second subject group occurs after forty bars with a descending phrase for flutes, oboes, clarinets and harp. Essentially a variant on a previous theme played both forwards and backwards and doubled at the ninth, it is accompanied in the violins by a line in even quavers. The horn motif moves chromatically down from E to C sharp (and at its next appearance is much extended). One of the first themes sounds again in the trumpets, a solo oboe intones what proves one of the most fecund motifs for the whole symphony.
The ‘second subject group’ is characterised by descending lines whereas those of the opening material generally move upwards. They are brought almost immediately into opposition when the oboes muse while the clarinets play a variant on a previous theme below them. Gradually all the motifs from two themes are added to the texture, embellished and subjected to thoroughgoing development. A sudden diminuendo to a soft D major chord leads to a chordal statement in the strings, whereupon the flutes lead off again, against which the bassoon, contrabassoon and – in quasi canon – the alto saxophone enter with a long-breathed theme built by extension, inversion and in retrograde ultimately from another subject.
After this subtle slowing of the pace, first the clarinets then violas and cellos propel the music onward with a broken form of the first subject. As altered versions of different subjects re-enter the fray at differing but complementary levels of activity, the music swings into A major. The actual slackening of the tempo is masked by the change of metre (common time hitherto, now in 12/8) which gives fresh impetus to the music in the violins. A new and insistent subject appears on the oboe, its repeated notes reinforcing the new surface tempo, quickly spreading through the other winds, then to the strings against which piccolo, cellos and basses recall a previous theme.
The tonality rises a step further to E major, with a return to 4/4 time in even semiquavers in the strings, and punctuated by a chord still of A major on trumpets and timpani. The impression is of increased activity, but with the A major chord holding it in check, the music seems for a moment to be running on the spot. This passage alternates with a dancing episode in winds and piano. As this latter takes over the foreground, horns and harp play an extended version of another theme, leading to a new and rather mysterious-sounding theme.
A much-repeated horn-call leads into the modulation to B major, where the metre changes to 3/8. Over a flowing melody in the strings, a trumpet plays a swifter version of the horn-call, extending it into a fanfare and masking the fact that the tempo is now roughly half that of the opening. The woodwinds and brass now take centre stage in an extended scherzando episode, founded largely on the trumpet’s fanfare version of the horn-call. This section reaches its conclusion on a grinding chord of A flat, topped by woodwind figures close to C sharp (the relative minor of E). Now finally emerges an audibly slow-paced music, the strings playing a theme in crotchets and minims, a solo horn reclaiming its call from earlier, and a much slowed-down version of another theme in the cor anglais and alto saxophone. These lines die away in F sharp, with the cellos and basses musing in inversion, over which the oboe plays it right-way-up. After barely eleven bars, the tempo slackens again to ‘Molto adagio’ as the key slips to C sharp in a chorale-like passage for brass in slow triplets. The first movement closes in a bleak A flat with an undulating trumpet solo rooted to F sharp.
After the complete stasis and silence following the first movement’s close, the second opens with the slowest tempo yet, ‘Largo’, in common time. The sounds are stark in their simplicity: a chord of A flat minor in the strings, the ghostly wail of a cymbal played with a cello bow, and a micro-glissando from D (the tritone again) to C on a flute, which all accompany a mournful passage (starting on D and progressing down to F) on the alto saxophone. Here perhaps is a resonance, however unconscious, from Wolfe’s novel, of the “image of man’s loneliness, a feeling of sorrow, desolation and wild, mournful, secret joy, longing and desire”. Violins take up the saxophone’s solo, starting now on the ‘tonic’ A flat, and combine it with elements of a previous theme against woodwind sextuplets.
As music gradually spreads through the string body, a theme is taken up by the upper winds and two trumpets become occupied with another theme, the welter of sound resembling some bizarre dawn chorus in a blasted landscape. A new modification appears in flutes and piccolo, punctuated by falling sevenths, slowly increasing the tension until it is suddenly (but only temporarily) dissipated by a move up to E flat minor with a quiet undulating motion (in 6/8 time) in the flutes and harp. The trumpets, however, raise the temperature with an agitated inversion of a previous passage, with repeated notes emphasising its kinship. The bassoons and alto saxophone come back, but the key has shifted to B flat, the metre back to 4/4, as the strings state a new theme. This climaxes in a grand, forceful iteration of one of the subject in the brass and winds. A sinuous violin line quickly builds up a richly layered texture to which the brass and winds rapidly join, leading to the pivotal point of the movement, if not the entire symphony. A slow, chiming ostinato on G and F (the latter repeated an octave lower to provide the illusion of a falling pattern) breaks out high up on flutes, piccolo, glockenspiel, bells and violins, against which is set a grinding, upward-thrusting motif for the trombones and tuba.
Here if anywhere is the composer’s comments concerning the optical illusion of two trains moving at different speeds in the same direction made manifest in sound, although to the present writer it also echoes the epigraph of Wolfe’s novel:
Who knoweth that spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
The passage builds to a thunderous climax for the whole brass and wind sections plus the percussion, giving way suddenly to a shimmering, swirling, pianissimo tapestry for flutes, clarinets, vibraphone, harp, celesta and violins, quite athematic were it not for a solo bassoon’s musings on A flat.
The texture clears with a shift to F major and a metre of 2/2, although the tonic is indicated as much by its absence initially. Flutes, celesta and harp chime away in thirds over busy string figurations, against which the bassoon returns, leading the way to C major and rapidly moving triplets in the violins. These sound very clear and deliberate after the preceding haze, masking the increase in pulse, and are opposed by a staccato passage in bass clarinet and pizzicato cellos. Other woodwinds join in and extend the bass clarinet and cello line, but the violins hold their own, though their reinforcement by the trumpets is timely as the tension mounts, driving on through G major (in 12/16) into the return of the opening D major and the first theme in a powerful, varied recapitulation. Perhaps because of the frenetic activity, the sense of homecoming proves less of a resolution than might have been expected, and this climactic section expires on a hollow chord of D major superimposed by F sharp major, and incorporating a C sharp – G tritone, followed by low, bare octave Ds in the piano, timpani and basses. This last, brief section, ‘Mesto’, returns to the initial tempo of the second movement, with the alto saxophone and solo strings musing quietly in A flat minor for the last time. A question to which there is no answer, perhaps, perhaps even of Wolfe’s ‘strange and bitter miracle of life.’
Approximately half of John McCabe’s orchestral output (at time of writing in excess of forty works) involves concertante elements in one form or another, including solo works for most of the standard instruments (thus far he has not essayed works for bassoon, horn, trombone, tuba, cello or double bass) and others for orchestral bodies, as in his highly regarded Concerto for Orchestra (written for Sir Georg Solti in 1982). The Flute Concerto was written in 1989 and 1990 for James Galway to a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra with funds provided by Shell UK Ltd. Its first performance took place at the Barbican Concert Hall in London on 20 September 1990, with Galway as soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LSO. These forces then took the work on tour.
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.
Guy Rickards © 1999