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John CASKEN (b. 1949)
Night, Fire, Sun, Silence

Infanta Marina (1994) for Cor Anglais and small ensemble
Rachael Pankhurst (cor anglais); Ensemble 10/10;
Piano Quartet (1990)
Members of the Psappho ensemble
Recorded Manchester Music Dept Concert Hall, July 2002
Firewhirl (1980) for soprano and ensemble
Patricia Rozario (sop); Ensemble 10/10
Amarantos (1978) for ensemble
Ensemble 10/10/Clark Rundell
Manchester University Rodewald Concert Hall, June 2003
Après Un Silence (1998) for violin and piano
Lesley Hatfield (violin); Andrew Ball (piano)
Salamandra – Fire Haunt (1986) for two pianos
Andrew Ball and Julian Jacobson (pianos)
Manchester Concert Hall, August 2002
Après Un Silence - version for violin and large ensemble
Kyra Humphreys (violin)
RNCM New Ensemble/Clark Rundell
Distant Variations (1996) for saxophone quartet and wind orchestra
Apollo Saxophone Quartet
RCNM Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell
Royal Northern College of Music Hall, June 2003
METIER MSV CD 92076 [64.32 + 67.16]


This double CD gives us a rare opportunity to catch up on John Casken’s instrumental and chamber music composed over the last twenty five years. All of the pieces are at the handy length of between fourteen and eighteen minutes, ideal for concerts where contemporary music may not be the entire raison d’être and ideal for busy lives and home listening. They encompass a wide variety of instrumental combinations so that the whole project is a pleasure; consistently interesting and challenging.

The CD title, Night, Fire, Sun, Silence is connected to several of the pieces recorded here. Night is the most elusive but relates to the atmosphere that pervades much of the music. Fire is more direct being related to Firewhirl inspired by night-time revelry around a Bonfire at Midsummer in Finland. Salamandra is also fire-inspired with its link with the Salamander and its home "around the rocks of a volcano’ allowing the subtitle Fire-haunt. Sun is obviously alluded to in the desert landscape of Salamandra but also in Distant Variations inspired by "Sunset in the silent canyon; the clear sharp contrast ... is shattered by the sun’s first rays". Finally Silence is a reminder that many of these inspirations have come from the silent places of the earth, a canyon, and a desert for instance. There is also the obvious linkage with two versions of Après un Silence. These were written in 1997 after a period of "almost a year of not composing". Another element which might have been part of the title is Water. Infanta Marina was inspired by a Wallace Stevens poem concerning Marina, daughter of Pericles, who was born in a storm at sea.

John Casken comes from the North. He was born there and for much of his life has resided there. He did however spend a short period in Birmingham where he was a pupil of John Joubert, who, incidentally, thinks very highly of him. I mention the Northern connection because it seems to me that there is something ‘northern’ about the sounds he conjures up. Piano Quartet seems to breathe the air of fells and lakes and yet is purely abstract. There is - and this is purely personal - a sort of greyness about his music. I don’t mean ordinariness, but the music carries the sense of a grey sky and of wind hovering inside the sound-world. Certainly it carries a true sense of the natural world despite the titles of these little ‘symphonic poems’ or perhaps one should say, ‘chamber poems’. Some of these works are directly connected to the natural world. Casken in his accompanying notes acknowledges this. Only in Firewhirl is there an explicit connection with the North.

Let me guide you briefly through each piece, beginning with the Piano Quartet. This, like other works is a ‘chip from the block’ of his large scale opera Golem (1989). Some ideas relate to the opera closely. Like his orchestral work Maharal Dancing (which also uses opera material), now available on the NMC label, it is in one movement. There is a complex contrapuntal opening which gradually unwinds into stillness and calm. A very sensitive ending ensues.

I remember in the 1980s an LP recording of Firewhirl. I was very impressed; again I feel the same way. Using a poem by George Macbeth, Casken creates a whirling atmosphere of unleashed sexual tension exemplified by the soprano soloist. This is played out against the instrumental background as the erotic image of a semi-naked dancing girl is watched by the spell-bound men.

After not composing for a year any composer will recognize the terrible psychological tension that can build in contemplating the demise of the art to which he felt born. In Après un silence this tension uncoils into an extraordinary convoluted kaleidoscope of counterpoint. Although I normally find Casken’s orchestration fascinating, I must admit that on this occasion my ears tired of the harsh sounds. The monotone version for violin and piano helped capture the elusive form and concentrated the mind on the main argument.

In Infanta Marina’s more impressionistic sound-world, water is evoked. This is a piece in three sections. They flow imperceptibly into each other. The cor anglais, that most melancholy of wind instruments, intertwines with the ensemble as if searching for a home. The sudden ending leaves you wanting more which is no bad thing.

Talking of Casken’s instrumentation leads me to Amarantos. This was inspired by an e.e.cummings poem. It is quite a tough nut in many ways but redolent of the grey colours I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, light and shadow, sun and rain pass across the scenery as if we are experiencing an April day. One’s imagination can run riot.

Salamandra, inspired by a lizard in a hot canyon, is typical of the kind of ‘chamber-poem’ as opposed to the ‘symphonic poem’ of years gone by. The subject is just a starting point for an evocation of a desert landscape, heat and of the human confusion which goes with such an alien environment.

You need time and patience with this music but it has its rewards. You can sit back and let some parts of this music wash over you. However to be an active listener is more rewarding and to go out to meet these pieces more than half-way is vital.

The recordings are close and analytical which feel is a good thing. The performances, as far as I can tell, seem perfect and totally involving.

I recommend this disc to anyone interested in contemporary British music.

Gary Higginson

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