John McCabe: Mountains

review maccabe mountains x1 cong

This new album from the late John McCabe dates back to 1985. He visited the EMI studios in Sydney to make an album of works by American and Australian composers. The project never materialised, the studios closed, and the masters were presumed lost. Then a cassette copy found among the composer’s papers, and remastered. This is it. It sounds nothing like a hissing C90.

The opener is Peter Sculthorpe’s Mountains. It is inspired by the landscape of Tasmania; it does suggest awe-inspiring vistas of rocky crags, but in a sombre climb-those-and-you’ll-die way, not a joyous celebration of the beauty of the genesis of Tazzy’s igneous rock. “Grave” is the word in the sleeve notes. This gravity continues until Piano Song, where it turns around, David Maslanka’s composition being a much warmer piece, meant to convey “the cumulative unhurried atunement to the New Hampshire summer”. It gets more hurried in the middle but it’s more organic than the earlier pieces.

Don Banks’ Pezzo Dramatico is next and it’s initially back to a colder sound, before it warms, as a jazz influence intrudes. It is two fast sections framing a more harmonised slow part.

Graeme Koehne’s Twilight Rain reflects the struggle of much of the album, trying to “reconcile a modernist style with poetic intentions”. It’s got a definite watery feel and softens the modern sound, the warmer sections suggesting a body of water, the more modern flourishes the splashing of water droplets.

George Rochberg’s Carnival Music is the longest piece on the CD and after a strident introduction — possibly the fanfare of an approaching carnival — is a jazzy / ragtime section, the melody underpinned by bassier notes suggesting the marching past of carnivalists, before it fades way into the distance. (We’re not being that clever, the title of this piece is Fanfares and March).

The blues follows, in a section entitled Blues; it’s a rolling sort of blues and we swear there are a couple of Beatles references (it was written in 1970).

Largo Doloroso follows, living up to its name, slow and sad, though never harsh. Some carnival this has turned out to be. It is followed by Sfumato, which as you know is a painting technique for softening the transition between colours, as in Mona Lisa’s eyes. The sleeve notes say the composer tried to combine modern music with classical; the shadowy figures hidden by the sfumato are those of Bach and Brahms. It’s peaceful and calming, which is why the next section, Toccata-Rag, comes crashing in like a stack of chairs falling over, before settling down to a very sedate and well-mannered rag, though with a nice flourish at the end.

The closing track is Barney Child’s Heaven To Clear When Day Did Close, dedicated to John McCabe and fellow pianist Dianna Thomas.

Overall, the programme treads an uneasy line between a starker modern sound and something gentler, with the frequent references to modern music mixing it all up a bit. People who like the technical side of the piano will probably like it most, though there is something for everyone.


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This is out now on MSV 28585.

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