old city new image - chamber music by John McCabe and David Ellis

CD Spotlight

Very Interesting and Original

GEOFF PEARCE listens to chamber music
by John McCabe and David Ellis

'... superb performances delivered by the Camerata Ensemble.'


After listening to this fine disc, I found myself asking a question that I frequently ask myself. Why are English composers not better known, especially outside the UK? There are so many truly gifted composers that may enjoy popularity at the time, but then soon fade into relative obscurity. I hope and pray that this is not the case here as the music is far too good to be neglected. Both these composers hail from Liverpool and there are many interesting parallels in their training and subsequent development. The title of the disc reflects the changes that have happened around Liverpool since the end of World War II, and its subsequent preservation and redevelopment.

The String Trio of 1965 by John McCabe (1939-2015), written to commemorate the sixtieth birthday of Alan Rawsthorne, is challenging to perform and not insubstantial in nature. This is probably my favourite work on the disc. Like every other work here, I cannot fault the performances of the Camerata Ensemble, who really demonstrate that they enjoy and really understand this music.

McCabe's first movement has remarkable rhythmic energy which propels the work forward. Whilst it is not going to have the listener humming or whistling the themes, it is compelling and attractive. There is a slower, but restless middle second subject that lasts a short while before the rhythmic element reasserts itself.

Listen — John McCabe: Allegro con fuoco (String Trio)
(track 1, 3:49-4:30) © 2019 primafacie :

The second movement is a set of variations without a specific theme. It starts quite sedately, but gradually increases in speed and intensity with each variation. This is no young composer trying out his first steps, but is a work assured in its technical mastery and also in its conviction that it has something worthwhile to say. To me this movement is like an onion - each layer quite different from the preceding one. There is nothing trite or gimmicky about it either. The music closes with material from the opening of the movement.

The last movement starts with a slow introduction, but a dance-like theme takes over, light and compelling. After some time, this is disrupted by the music from the opening again, but this is quickly dispelled and the dance reasserts itself.

Listen — John McCabe: Lento - Allegro giocoso (String Trio)
(track 3, 3:55-4:34) © 2019 primafacie :

McCabe's String Quartet No 2 was written in 1972 and, whilst in one movement, is in four sections. The first, Flessibile, starting without any fanfare, is lyrical yet rhythmic in nature, and has a lot of solo work for the first violin. This is followed by a Scherzo, marked Vivo, which is quite amazing in its textural variation. The Scherzo's tension is removed somewhat by a slow Largo section, but not completely so, because of the solo cadenzas which interrupt the slow, serene mood from time to time. This I feel is the emotional core of the work, and is the longest of the four sections. The work is rounded off by a strongly-driven last section, Deciso. I hope that this very interesting and original work is performed frequently.

Listen — John McCabe: String Quartet No 2
(track 4, 3:35-4:13) © 2019 primafacie :

The 1954 Trio of David Ellis (born 1933) comprises three short movements and two longer ones. It starts with a prelude and is described as a three part invention. A short theme is introduced by the violin and played by the other instruments in turn. It is melodic and interesting.

The second movement, an Elegy, contains a magical section where the violin is supported by tremolo in the other two parts. The movement overall is somewhat autumnal in feeling and quite beautiful.

Listen — David Ellis: Elegy (Trio for violin, viola and cello)
(track 6, 3:36-4:16) © 2019 primafacie :

The next movement is another short one that is varied in movement and mood. This makes way for the second of the longer movements, a chaconne, a rising scale in the cello, over which variations are woven. There are moments of intense beauty and this is indeed a movement of complication to be savoured. This movement contains sections which are more taut and tense, providing variation and interest, rather than detracting from the rest of the movement.

The last movement is dancelike and rhythmic. This is music to be enjoyed.

The final work on the disc is Ellis' four movement String Quartet No 1, dating from 1980 and commissioned by composer Alun Hoddinott for the Cardiff Festival of Music.

The first movement is cohesive and interesting with its taut and syncopated subjects. Whilst absolutely twentieth century music, it is nevertheless enjoyable and not challenging to listen to.

Listen — David Ellis: Allegro inquieto (String Quartet No 1)
(track 10, 2:16-3:00) © 2019 primafacie :

The second movement is a Scherzo and Trio and the Scherzo is a passacaglia built on an ascending scale. This is rhythmic and propelling music, the trio being a more contemplative affair before the Scherzo briefly reasserts itself.

The third movement starts off very quietly and slowly in the cello, and gradually the viola and lastly the violins are introduced. It is a kind of lament, I think, and is built around a four-note figure that expands as the music progresses. The sadness is relieved by a quicker and dance-like lighter middle section, although the four note motif is always present, before a return to the sad and contemplative opening section.

Listen — David Ellis: Lento (String Quartet No 1)
(track 12, 5:50-6:31) © 2019 primafacie :

The last movement starts with a waltz-like introduction followed by a strongly percussive section that contains a lot of pent up energy, but this is interrupted by quieter sections which prevent the music breaking out into a dramatic close. The work ends with a quiet coda.

This is a disc to be savoured and appreciated. The music is certainly and unashamedly twentieth century in style but there is absolutely nothing that would rob most listeners of the sheer inventiveness and beauty of the compositions, and the superb performances delivered by the Camerata Ensemble.

Copyright © 23 March 2019 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



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