JOHN McCABE – Summer Eves – Into the Ravine

British Early Modern/Contemporary composer John McCabe, CBE [1939–2015] wrote at least seven string quartets. He has been on my shortlist for some time as I am fascinated by his musical spaces and have been waiting for a quartet to become available so that you can also sample it. At this time I decided to go with the only quartet for which this is possible, the Seventh. More on that later. This work, titled Summer Eves is in five movements.

The quartet opens in a sumptuous, somewhat emotionally ambivalent mood, with several melodic lines intertwined – it is a beautiful sound. A sense of tension evolves but soon dissipates leading to a violin expressing gracefully over a cello accompaniment. The tension reappears, but again, soon moves back into the grace. Persistent violin lines now establish a new mood with stabbing interjections, always giving way to a release of the tension, and a renewal of charming melodic ideas. Nearing the end, a few moments of pizzicato violin ensue and abruptly stop.

The next, brief movement has a violin dialogue leading to a flurry of musical activity. The cello is yet to appear. When it does, it is used sparingly until a section of cello with a harmonised pizzicato violin leads to some intrigue. A gentle section gives way to a powerful flourish, which concludes.

The third movement is even shorter and has the attack of a Shostakovich quartet. Rhythmically very strong, a violin spins out fast-paced melodic lines, and a degree of tension. This busy mood takes the movement out, with a faded violin tone.

An adagio marking defines the next movement, with a strong, persistent violin line predominating over a quiet modal drone. Brief melodic incursions are invariably followed by the persistent violin. A solo cello part is dynamic, before falling into a period of glissando, with a hint of micro-tones. Now the ensemble are as one, with a most intimate section. The violins hint at earlier melodies before the drone returns and the opening feeling is revisited. A violin leads to a strong, but false, ending. The return is a series of soft sparse melodies, which fade to a conclusion.

The finale commences with a mysterious eerie violin line, which leads the other instruments through a series of foreboding soundscapes, alternating with forceful, harmonised sections. This is a very modern, British sounding movement, with an absence of strong melody, more an indeterminate suggestion of one. The tension builds for a time and the end is the almost obligatory fade.

The review CD by the Carducci Quartet, features the work of three composers, and only one McCabe work. The other two works are Michael Berkeley’s Oboe QuintetInto the Ravine, and Adrian Williams’ Fourth Quartet, which has a more modern sound than McCabe, but features an extraordinarily poignant slow movement. Interestingly, this is the third CD I have discussed by the Carducci Quartet that contains an oboe work – the other composers were Joseph Horovitz and Graham Whettam.

Into the Ravine is available on the Signum Classics label at Amazon UK and Presto Classical. Amazon US has it as a download only but they also feature a CD with String Quartets Nos. 3, 4 and 5 which contain 36 movements between them…

The McCabe work can be found on Spotify, on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Mildly modern, interesting work.


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