McCABE: Edward II.
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
Hyperion CDA67135/6 (2 CDs) (F) {DDD} TT: 113:49

Go figure. I've never particularly cared for John McCabe's music. Despite a brilliantly-worked surface and a microscopic attention to thematic variation, it never seemed to go anywhere. I thought McCabe may have fallen into a trap crowded with a lot of post-World War II composers: that because one could trace thematic development, one also had created a satisfying rhetorical structure. In McCabe's case, I felt as if I watched a weight lifter pick up several hundred pounds and then set it down on the exact same spot, or the clockwork innards of a Swiss watch rather than the functional exoskeleton of a steam locomotive. I could see why people liked McCabe; he doesn't purvey shoddy stuff. However, his music never did what I want music to do—to give me the sensation of a transforming journey through time. The music transforms like crazy, but it didn't seem to journey.

Consequently, I put off reviewing this CD for a couple of weeks. I had no desire to slam McCabe, or anyone else for that matter, but the CD began to loom too large on my psychic horizon. I found myself dreading the review I thought I would probably write. So I told myself, "What the hell?" and gritted my teeth and prepared to hate what I was about to hear.

You're probably way ahead of me right now. This ballet succeeds like gangbusters, moving like no other McCabe work I've heard and yet still recognizably McCabe, full of his usual procedures. Once again, we find the closely-worked thematic development. Indeed, Guy Rickards's liner notes argue briefly but convincingly that the entire ballet derives from the opening plainchant-like theme describing the funeral rites for Edward I. I would add that McCabe's powers of thematic transformation and variety fall nothing short of extraordinary. Clearly, a ballet composer doesn't have to do this. In fact, very few of the standard ballets, if any, work this way. I can't think of any before the Modern era. However, they do have to tell a story, and it would be nice if they delineated character as well. McCabe writes with roughly the same attention to musical argument as a symphony writer, although he doesn't attempt to make a "symphony-ballet." I strongly suspect this is simply how he writes all his music. Here, it's a bonus rather than a be-all.

The action is of course the story, told by Marlowe and (later) Brecht, of how Edward's infatuation for his lovers Gaveston and Despenser ruined his kingdom. McCabe and his librettist don't shy away from much, including Edward's grand guignol death, by red-hot poker up the anus. However, McCabe's music emphasizes the dramatic and the psychological, rather than the spectacular. The three dance duets between Queen Isabella and the Duke of Mortimer stand out. The first is a failed dance of seduction, the second passionate, the third depravity, as their relationship progresses. Edward's scenes in prison emphasize his inner despair rather than the horrors.
The instrumentation ranges from the lean and angular to the grotesque to the tender, and all the textures sound as clear as an oboe's A. McCabe's orchestra scintillates in a characteristic way. It reminds me of a hummingbird's throat. He gets wonderful new sounds from old combinations and the sparing introduction of unusual instruments— this time, an electric guitar played with the experimental exuberance of a Jimmy Page or a Jimi Hendrix. Like those two, McCabe re-imagines the sounds this instrument can make and then—this is the important part—integrates it into music and the drama. There's not a lot of electric guitar in the piece, but you remember its appearances.
I hope I haven't given the impression that the score is all duty and lessons. There are plenty of bon-bons as well: a rather scruffy set for a rather scruffy theatrical troupe that comments satirically on the action; a hair-raising war dance by Edward's estranged wife, Isabella, the "she-wolf of France"; a tender pastorale as Edward and his lover Gaveston picnic and frolic.

Wordsworth and the Sinfonia do very well by a rich and complex score, but it's still an early performance. If Edward II ever becomes a standard or even occasionally revived, its familiarity, if nothing else, will inspire performances more polished. Nevertheless, Wordsworth reveals the dramatic power and the musical stature of the score.

S.G.S. (November 2003)