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John CASKEN (b.1949)
Darting the Skiff (1993) [18’19]
Maharal Dreaming (1991) [12’33]
Cello Concerto (1991) [20’13]
Vaganza (1985) [27’06]
Heinrich Schiff (cello/director)
Northern Sinfonia/John Casken (conductor)
Recorded at St. Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth, Newcastle-on-Tyne, August 1992 (concerto) and 3-6 September 1994
NMC ANCORA D086 [78’11]

This is another very desirable release in NMC’s excellent Ancora series, which aims to restore deleted recordings back to circulation – for good. This is great news for collectors, of course, and when the music is as richly inventive and memorable as here, then one hopes for success and a whole new public for the disc.

I have long admired the orchestral works of John Casken, and indeed studied briefly with him during his short stay as Composition Fellow at Huddersfield University. It was obvious then that he had a real flair for orchestral sonority and brilliance of texture, due in no small way to his extended period of study with Lutosławski in Poland. But Casken has always been his own man, and one looks in vain for too many obvious influences. It is best, instead, to enjoy the rich palette of sounds he conjures up from conventional forces, where sheer communication and feeling, without any cheap ‘selling out’ to the masses, seems paramount. In this sense he is in a strong line of younger British composers such as Saxton, Knussen and Bainbridge. I think Richard Steinitz admirably summed up Casken’s style as ‘a fusion of the lyrical and dynamic…he writes attractive melodies, but in lines which are so muscular, lithe and intriguing that one wants instantly to hear them again’. The works on this disc fall absolutely into this category.

Keen followers of modern British music may well know some of these pieces, all of which appeared on the Collins label, and possibly the most popular has been the Cello Concerto. This marvellous work was commissioned, premiered and regularly championed by Heinrich Schiff, and though other cellists have played it, this strikes me as being as definitive a reading as we are likely to get. Casken skilfully exploits all the best characteristics of the instrument, particularly the dark sonorities and ability to create a singing cantabile line. He talks in the liner note about his approach to writing for solo instrument and orchestra as ‘that of setting an individual figure in particular place or landscape’. He provides a five line Haiku-style poem to define this landscape, and the cello opens the work by literally ‘singing’ the five lines of the poem. The individual lines are then quoted for each section of the piece, and material from the opening is developed and woven throughout the structure. The end result is a work of great power and movement, with moments of lyrical repose contrasting with sections of rugged grandeur, really in the best traditions of a cello concerto. Schiff asked that the work be written in such a way that the soloist can conduct, a challenging task for the composer. Such is the magnetism of this performance, one is certainly never aware of any technical shortcomings, and there is a freedom and spontaneity to the playing (including the orchestra) that captures the listener from first to last.

The longest work on the disc is Vaganza, (as in extravaganza) a ‘serious entertainment in six movements for large mixed ensemble and chamber organ’. Casken is at pains to point out that this is not an organ concerto, though the organ does contribute significantly to the texture at key moments. Coming from the mid-80s, the first impressions are that this may well be the most determinedly ‘modern’ piece here, and that is not meant to be detrimental. The instruments are used with enormous skill and ingenuity to create a kaleidoscope of colour and energy – one could easily imagine this being choreographed. Any piece of this character and employing titles like ‘Archaic dance’, ‘Puppets’ and ‘Parade’ is bound to invite comparison with famous forerunners, and I’m sure that allusions to Petrushka are almost intentional, or at least buried in the composer’s subconscious. The sheer virtuosity of the writing has to be admired and once again, even in the thorniest of textures, there is the feeling that the music has the sort of earthy vitality that is not easily forgotten.

The next most substantial piece here is Darting the Skiff, which is also the most recent of the works here. This is in itself interesting, as the listener is even more aware of that need to communicate growing stronger. The piece, for string orchestra, was again written for the Northern Sinfonia and was conceived in an idyllic studio retreat overlooking Lake Como in Italy. That the piece celebrates water, its movement, colour and ever-changing imagery, is obvious from the start, where the high strings jump out at the listener in a brilliant, almost improvisatory way. Casken splits his strings up in such a way as to make it sound like a much bigger orchestra and the variety, range and contrast once again holds the listener in its grip. This 18-minute work strikes me as being in a long line of great British string works, and fully up to its exalted company.

The short, intense fantasy entitled Maharal Dreaming is based on material from Casken’s first opera Golem, one of his most successful works. He admits it is very much a ‘free fantasy’, using some musical ideas from the opera as well as new material. Thus it can be appreciated separately from the opera, or heard almost as an introduction to it. Its atmosphere of brooding and foreboding reflect what the composer calls ‘some of the dreams the Maharal might have had before he took the momentous step to create the man of clay’. The use of orchestral sonority here is masterly, showing a composer fully in command of his resources. The large range of percussion in particularly is used with great subtlety, and the ending is both memorable and uncomfortable, as if bigger questions are being asked to which there is no easy response.

This well-filled disc deserves success. It is the perfect way to get to know some truly inventive and stimulating music by one of our most important contemporary composers. Sound quality is superb, and the notes succinct, readable and, of course, authoritative. It should be snapped up by anyone who cares about the modern British music scene.

Tony Haywood

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