A Garland for John McCabe

review mccabe x1 cong

This is an odd album, though we ended up liking it more than we expected. It’s done with love for a man the composers respected and is more a private playlist, something to be shared among friends (and it’s been paid for by subscription). It’s unlikely to be performed live.

After playing it several times, it reminded us of an album we reviewed years ago, Non-Stop Cuisine, a collection of modern French folk tunes that David Byrne curated as a sampler of the genre.

And this is what this is: a sample of various people’s work. Rather like Non-Stop Cuisine, you may never hear another tune by any of the composers again but the collection itself works as a standalone programme.

The opener is Peter Dickinson’s A Rag For John McCabe, a jaunty piece that’s less ragtime as per a Kentucky nightclub in 1901 and more a crew of maudlin pirates dancing round a dead man’s chest.

Track two, John Joubert’s Exequy is as its name suggests, a slow opening giving way to a silent movie soundtrack, where the hero sadly mourns the demise of his gal. There is a filmic quality to much of the album, perhaps because the music was written for, and in memory of, a real person.

Edward Gregson’s John’s Farewell is also sad, but the recorder gives it a wistful Last of the Summer Wine quality, more about a life well lived than one lost.

Elis Pehkonen’s Lament For Turtle Dove mixes reverence with a lightness of touch; it is based on a medieval plainsong melody, Benedicamus Domino. Robin Walker’s And Will You Walk Beside Me Down The Lane? is also chipper, taking as its inspiration Alan Murray’s 1930s song I’ll Walk Beside You.

We also like Christopher Gunning’s Danse des Fourmis, based on McCabe’s sense of humour and inspired by ants (scientific name: Formicidae). Having written a work about ants in memory of McCabe, Gunning writes: “I have no idea whether or not John had any interest in ants.”

On the sleeve notes, McCabe’s widow Monica says her husband’s earliest memory was creeping downstairs, after he had been put to bed, and sitting on the bottom step when his parents played records; he loved music and took joy in created sounds, she says. A fitting tribute, then, but enjoy it as a collection of works from modern composers rather than a tribute among friends. The performers are Linda Merrick on clarinet; John Turner, recorder; Alistair Vennart, viola, and Peter Lawson, piano.

Out on Divine Art, DDA25166.

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