John McCabe’s “Lost” Australian Recording Rediscovered

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 7

John McCabe recorded this collection of piano works by Australian and American composers in 1985 for a small Australian outfit. He received a Dolby-encoded cassette of the edited master tape for approval. According to the pianist’s widow Monica McCabe, several points needed further attention, yet no one followed through. As a consequence, the recording remained unreleased, and the masters eventually got lost. Years later, Ms. McCabe discovered the cassette in her husband’s effects, and it now has been carefully remastered for commercial issue.

All of the music is serious, substantial, and well worth hearing. As you might expect from the title, Peter Sculthorpe’s Mountains conveys a craggy, monumental impression, while Wendy Hiscocks’ Toccata veers between jagged dissonance and the kind of repeated-note patterns you might hear from a traditional Turkish kanun player. I did not know that David Maslanka had written his spacious, sparse, and hauntingly evocative Piano Song for McCabe. All I can say is that he plays it beautifully. (A sidebar: I studied with Maslanka in my late teens, and I actually played the American premiere of Piano Song not long after it was composed, so I know what I’m talking about!)

The rhetorical gestures in Don Banks’ Pezzo Dramatico beckon my attention (the trills, the crashing chords, and so forth), but the gray atonality of his musical language appeals to me less. By contrast, Graeme Koehne’s Twilight Rain makes telling use of all registers, and abounds in virtuosic flourishes that never sound like mere padding. McCabe digs into the jazzy movements of George Rochberg’s Carnival Music with welcome abandon, fervor, and stylistic aplomb. The concluding work by Barney Childs keeps you guessing in regard to its quirky and unpredictable structure.

McCabe’s advocacy for the music of his time had nothing to do with trends, and everything to do with artistic truth and authenticity. He stuck his neck out for the music he believed in, and that consistently manifests itself in his exceptional pianism and music making.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: Mountains: The "Lost" Australian Recording
Reference Recording: None for this collection

PETER SCULTHORPE: Mountains
WENDY HISCOCKS: Toccata
DAVID MASLANKA: Piano Song
DON BANKS: Pezzo Dramatico
GRAEME KOEHNE: Twilight Rain
GEORGE ROCHBERG: Carnival Music
BARNEY CHILDS: Heaven to clear when day did close

  • John McCabe (piano)

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