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John CASKEN (b.1949)
Violin Concerto [30:44];
Concerto for Orchestra [19:33]
Orion Over Farne [23:34]
Sophia Jaffé (violin)
Hallé Orchestra/Markus Stenz
rec. Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester, 2-4 March 2013 (Violin Concerto; Concerto for Orchestra); 28-29 November 2013 (Orion Over Farne).
NMC RECORDINGS NMC D189 [74:40]

This is one of a number of CDs issued this year (2014) by NMC. They mark a quarter century of giving voice to contemporary British music. While Adès and Turnage have found acceptance with conventionally accepted 'major' labels NMC continue to offer a vital home to others, including John Casken.

NMC also have other Casken discs, including his opera Golem (NMC D113) and one coupling the orchestral works Maharal Dreaming (1989), Cello Concerto (1991) and the evocatively titled Darting the Skiff for strings (1993) (NMC D086). He is a far from unfamiliar presence if you follow the BBC Proms and other commissions but he is by no means a household name.

The Violin Concerto is fashioned around the journey of the central character in Casken's opera God's Liar which is in turn based on a Tolstoy novella: Father Sergius. Of the three movements the first is in a language that has about it the glimmer of Szymanowski though not quite as sultry. Its progress and curve proceeds in a way that feels instinctive rather than measured. There are a number of moments of instantly beautiful music which you know will spell attraction for the rest as one listens. The finale is more belligerent and in its crash and grit tracks back to the conventions of modern music; this after the shimmering invention of the first two movements. I am not sure that much is to be gained by linking the movements to the incidents of the opera. The concerto must stand on its own two feet and this it does.

With the Concerto for Orchestra one knows that Casken is in a familiar comfort zone. He is, after all, something of a mage when it comes to writing for orchestra. Light and air play through its pages and not once is there anything approaching congestion. The textures are soloistic and chamber-music transparent. The trill, grunt and cadential rills of this piece occupy a modern hinterland in which shining fragments proceed one after another in the sort of display one expects from a work with this title. It's organised into two movements which here are laid out in four tracks. Casken writes that he considered calling it a 'symphony'. He was right to stand back from that because its overall tenor is one of impressive brilliance rather than symphonic moment. That said, there are parts of the adagio (tr. 6) that have a symphonic charge to them.

Casken has a knack for really good titles, as Maharal Dreaming and Darting the Skiff indicate. Orion Over Farne - pretty much a tone poem - is further testimony to that gift. David Matthews and Anthony Payne have also kicked against the pricks of fashion by writing tone poems. Casken joins that company. Orion over Farne is Casken's first purely orchestral work since Tableaux des Trois Ages (1977). It is dedicated to Witold and Danuta Lutosławski and dates from 1984. Its near-24 minutes are set out here in four sections which in the score carry superscriptions from the legend of Orion the Hunter. It also carries the inspiration of the Northumbrian landscape - specifically the magical Farne Islands where both St Aidan and St Cuthbert made their homes. The otherworldliness of the place has exercised its spell over this music in confluence with that of the Orion story and a striking poem by Basil Bunting where musical imagery meets references to landscape and specifically to Farne. Given its 1980s provenance this work is prone to late-Stravinskian episodic waywardness, rushing, expostulation and protest. Casken is here at his most modernistic by comparison with the much more recent and entrancing Violin Concerto. The shimmering threat and mysticism is palpable in the final section and is perhaps inspired by the Aurora Borealis in much the same way as Eduard Tubin's Sixth Symphony is so inspired.

I should add that for 89p you can download from NMC Casken's second oboe concerto Apollinaire's Bird. It's available at the NMC online shop.

This disc represents another piece of elite advocacy by NMC for a contemporary British composer who still allows house-room to imagination. Fascinating generally, but the Violin Concerto stands out in this company.

Rob Barnett

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