The orchestral song-cycle Notturni ed Alba is the most exotically and seductively beautiful music McCabe has yet written, a work of dark and intense passion, suffused by inspired lyrical inventiveness. It was commissioned by the Herefordshire Arts Association for the 1970 Three Choirs Festival and was first performed in Hereford Cathedral on August 26th, 1970 by Sheila Armstrong, to whom it is dedicated, and the City of Birmingham Orchestra, conducted by Louis Frémaux. It is a setting of four medieval Latin poems dealing with various aspects of night. The first poem describes the solace that sleep brings to a "mind racked by storms and burdened with worries". In the short second lyric, the solitary sleeper yearns for his beloved to lie beside him. The third describes a nightmare; and the last is an aubade (Alba), depicting the coming of dawn. Despite the large orchestra used, the singer is never obscured: she is a true soloist, not an extra concertante instrument. In addition to triple woodwind and a strong brass section, there is a vast array of percussion including, besides the usual constituents, claves, guiro, whip, maracas, crotales, bongos, temple blocks and Japanese wind chimes.
Before the first song there is a short andante orchestral introduction describing sunset. A solo horn opens the work with a theme from which most of the melodic material is to be derived. Flutes and divided strings are atmospherically employed, and the next important theme is played by a solo oboe, a fluent rhapsodic melody which prepares the way for the soprano's ecstatic entry. The tempo changes to allegro at the second verse, where the flutter-tonguing of the flutes attains major significance. The second song is preceded by a scherzo section, entitled "Phantoms". This is mainly (and I think marvellously) scored for percussion, though woodwind and brass add a menacing rhythm until the flutes' fluttering returns and the strings' sustained chords guide the music to lento and the soloist's rapturous love song. This mood is abruptly broken by the nightmare song, where McCabe's skill in providing a vivid background for the voice is at its most admirable. For the final song the strings assume a richer and more prominent role, imparting the radiance of sunrise to the score. After the voice's last dramatic phrase, this radiance spreads through the orchestra in a melodically and harmonically beautiful postlude.
© 1973 Michael Kennedy