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John CASKEN (b.1949)
Golem (1989) - opera in 2 parts: Prelude and Legend
(libretto by the composer and Pierre Audi)
Maharal – Adrian Clarke (baritone)
Golem – John Hall (bass-baritone)
Miriam – Patricia Rozario (soprano)
Ometh – Christopher Robson (counter-tenor)
Stoikus – Paul Wilson (tenor)
Jadek – Richard Morris (baritone)
Stump – Paul Harrhy (tenor)
Gerty – Mary Thomas (mezzo)
Music Projects London/Richard Bernas
Recorded at Golders Green Hippodrome, London, July 1989
NMC ANCORA D113 [50’36 + 48’39]



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Golem was Barnsley-born John Casken’s first opera. It was commissioned by the Almeida International Festival of Contemporary music in London, where it received its world premiere in 1989, directed by Pierre Audi, who also had a hand in the libretto. Subsequently it won the first Britten Award for Composition, resulting in this recording, first issued on Virgin Classics, and a number of further productions. It was certainly one of the key works that put Casken on the international map, and I vividly remember the interest aroused when the Almeida staging came to the 1989 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, a sell-out audience cheering long and loud.

The composer has told me that he was disappointed when the Virgin set, which he had helped supervise, was withdrawn because of poor sales. It was hardly going to be a best-seller, but many contemporary composers rely on recordings to reach a wider public, and Virgin showed little faith by deleting it so early on. It is thus cause for celebration that NMC, such a supporter of British new music, should step in with a handsome re-packaging at mid-price. One can only hope that the piece gains a whole new audience, for the opera is well worth investigating.

At its heart this is a fairly simple narrative, but the underlying themes are deep and multi-layered. The Golem, a man of clay, is created by Maharal, the rabbi and spiritual leader of the community. The Golem is meant to protect the people – ‘Our shield and joy, A saint to do God’s work in secret’ – but eventually becomes a threat to that very same community, who eventually seek his destruction. Casken himself sees many metaphors in this story of creation, not least that of artistic creation. We also get allusions to the Faust legend, to man’s eternal dream to have power over God and, more tellingly for our time, the dangers of xenophobia and putting too much faith in technology. As Casken himself says, ‘…the story of the Golem reminds us of our tendency to create artificial totems in order to make our feelings of outrage more tolerable, and it warns against assuming that the solutions to man’s problems rest not within man himself, but can be found in spite of man’.

The musical language employed to deliver this allegory is itself many-layered and rich. A fairly small chamber orchestra is augmented by a large and diverse array percussion (directed to be played by one person), including such exotica as clay pots, spring coils, chains and bell tree. There is also an electronic tape, something Casken rarely uses and which, he assures me, is purely for special effect rather than as part of the orchestra. The score is richly lyrical, in a craggy, post-2nd Viennese sort of way, and it’s no surprise when Casken mentions Berg, Tippett and Britten as composers he admires. The harmonic textures are quite dense at times, but superior orchestration leavens this out, and the angular nature of much of the melody shows an ancestry in Romanticism. The passages of ‘aleatoric counterpoint’ that allow the performers some licence are part of Casken’s inheritance to his mentor Lutosławski, but one always feels the creative hand in control.

The performances are uniformly excellent, as one might expect with the original team of singers and players. Adrian Clarke’s Maharal is suitably dominant in both voice and stature, but we glimpse his vulnerability when the forces of nature get out of hand. John Hall’s Golem is a complex study of innocence corrupted, of trying to make sense of human behaviour in a complex world. Patricia Rozario copes with all that is asked of her with her usual authority, and Ometh, the ‘figure of hope and conscience,’ a Britten-like creation for countertenor, is beautifully sung and acted by Christopher Robinson. All the players respond to Richard Bernas’ vigorous direction with nothing short of virtuosity.

The re-packaging is less elaborate than the original Virgin but makes better sense. Instead of two separate booklets (one containing the libretto) everything has been condensed into one by dumping the foreign language translations. The two essays by Casken and Andrew Clements have new copyright dates of 2005, but though the composer’s has been revised and updated, Clements’ appears to be entirely the original, save for one reference to Casken’s last opera, God’s Liar.

The recording was always excellent, and though no mention is made of re-mastering, the sound appears to have a touch more depth and clarity. At mid-price, this really deserves success, and no-one interested in British opera should miss it.

Tony Haywood




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