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Three string quartets by McCabe performed by the Sacconi Quartet

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Silver Nocturnes; The Woman by the Sea; Horn Quintet
Roderick Williams (baritone), David Pyatt (horn), John McCabe (piano); Sacconi Quartet
NMC D230

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British composer John McCabe (1939-2015) had an appreciation for string quartets, having written seven works for this form. In this trio of quintets, he effectively added piano, baritone or horn to the usual foursome.

The earliest of these, The Woman by the Sea (2001), draws direct inspiration from the film Sansho Dayu (1954) to tell the story of a mother’s suffering. It uses kaleidoscopic variations, with restricted yet profound melodic development. The piano, played by the composer and recorded in 2009, adds frequent iridescent colour via the instrument’s upper register. Extended techniques are employed in the strings: rasps are combined with dissonant piano chords to create a ‘false’ ending. In fact, the 18-minute work ends with a drawn-out, sparsely ethereal section that ends as subtly as the music began.

Silver Nocturnes blurs the boundary between string quartet and quintet; the work is actually presented as the former (String Quartet No. 6, 2011), with additional scoring for baritone, sung here by Roderick Williams. There is a Britten-esque quality to the vocal line, which sets three of the 16th-century Silver Poets: Henry Howard, Edward Dyer and Philip Sidney. Williams has the necessary strength and intensity for the music’s bleak dramaticism.

The Horn Quintet (2010-11) confirms McCabe’s as part of the ‘English’ school, with influences from Tippett and Vaughan Williams clearly audible. The horn (David Pyatt) calls, beguiles and intrigues.

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Claire Jackson