Casken Premiere

Composer Portrait – John Casken

Blue Medusa, for bassoon and piano
The Haunting Bough, for piano
Nearly Distant, for saxophone quartet

John Casken in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 8

Symphony ‘Broken Consort’ [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto in G
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 22 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the many pleasures available to the seasoned Proms-goer is to chart the development of particular living composers as they are regularly revisited thanks to the munificence of the BBC (and as check-listed in wonderfully anorak-detail in David Harman’s “Previously at the Proms” section). John Casken’s output over the last twenty years has been amply evidenced in this fashion – from the highly-strung filigree of the orchestral Orion over Farne and the (a cappella) To fields we do not know (both in the 1986 season) to the more relaxed and pliable vein heard in such works as the Violin Concerto premiered during the 1995 Proms. Latterly Casken has focussed on chamber music, hence the prospect of a major new orchestral piece, a symphony no less, was enticing indeed.

The work’s subtitle ‘Broken Consort’ is borrowed from Elizabethan music but refers here to the ‘gypsy ensemble’ (piano accordion, cimbalom, electric violin and mandolin) which ‘sits in’ with the orchestra and the dialogue between the two is the determining impetus of the entire piece. Casken sees in this a metaphor for the integration of different cultures, which so exercises us in present-day Europe, although it was Casken’s direct response to the versatility of the BBC Philharmonic, which has an unusually high number of players who double on instruments more associated with traditional music. (Peter Maxwell Davies has also paid tribute to this phenomenon in his Cross Lane Fair and The Beltane Fire.)
At pivotal moments, this ensemble vigorously asserts its own agenda, but more often it adds distinctive coloration – the jangling of the cimbalom throwing out wild flurries of notes; the accordion twitching nervously; the electric violin’s spidery lines (bringing to mind the ‘wind in the graveyard’ of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No.1); and the mandolin, well, apparently not doing very much from where I was sitting.

The Symphony is in the two-movement form favoured by Casken and there is a sense in which the two movements cover similar terrain using different means. Both movements take the form of slow rumination eventually breaking into an energetic dance followed by a winding-down into silence. This template whereby a long gestation leads to a definitive take-off point is a hallmark of Casken’s erstwhile mentor Lutoslawski (for instance the two-part ‘Hesitant’/’Direct’ structure of the Second Symphony). Indeed Lutoslawski spoke of the take-off arriving at precisely the point where the listener may be becoming impatient with the inconclusiveness of the preceding music.

This is a strategy that brings its own risks, risks that Casken hasn’t entirely avoided here. Beguiling as the long build-ups are in both movements, the ensuing fast music, so hard achieved, seemed to run out of steam too soon, creating a strangely foreshortened impression. Instead of reaching a sustained plateau, we were already on the descent before we had time to admire the view. I wondered whether a single movement employing the same overall structure but with a more extended fast section would have worked better, indeed would have been more ‘symphonic’.

If the formal proportions didn’t feel quite right, the quality of the musical invention more than compensated. Casken’s ear for sonority is second to none and the orchestral textures are bewitching. Unlike many other contemporary composers, his harmonic thinking tends to move at the same speed as the surface detail, producing a vertiginous effect in the faster passages. One wanted to instantly hear certain passages again – towards the end of the first movement when the gypsy band settled into an authentic East European modality and coaxed the E flat clarinet to join it, a moment recalled near the end of the second movement.

Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic delivered a beautifully articulate performance; the many-shaded hues of Casken’s orchestral writing glowed as if lit from within.

A single-movement structure would also have been a benefit on the night: we would have been spared the depressing spectacle of the audience applauding after the first movement as if the piece was over, a gesture of lazy stupidity (didn’t they read the programme note?). This was inexcusably compounded by the BBC-television house-lights being turned on!

An exceptionally stimulating “Composer Portrait” in the V & A had already displayed Casken’s mastery of compositional technique in the shape of three of his recent chamber works performed by graduates of the Royal Northern College of Music. Blue Medusa (2003) for bassoon and piano is a model of lucid and transparent musical thought. The result of a private commission, Blue Medusa spoke most articulately of the civilised pleasure of having a composer as part of the community. The bassoon’s aquamarine gurgling suggested a kinship with Britten’s Nocturne. Casken mentioned that he was thinking of producing a version with chamber orchestra – he really should not hesitate to do so. It was given an assured performance by Luke Whitehead and Ruth Hollick.

The Haunting Bough (1999), a set of piano variations on a theme by Rameau, packed a considerable amount of drama into its five minutes and was coolly despatched by Adam Swayne. Nearly Distant, given an explosive rendition by the Veya Saxophone Quartet, was a riot of near-unison close harmony constantly twisting into fantastical shapes.

Back at the RAH, Casken’s new work was followed by Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The ragged orchestral contribution of the first movement suggested that rehearsal time had been limited, although such doubts were banished by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s magically voiced performance of the Adagio: a rapt, entranced vision of paradise, which suggested that there is not a more sublime movement in the whole of music. Even the disruptive finale, delivered with more subtlety than usual, could not dispel that thought.

Subtlety and refinement were also the defining qualities of this performance of The Firebird. The diaphanous textures of much of the first scene were so exquisitely realised that the ‘Infernal Dance’ when it finally erupted came as a real shock. Noseda kept this tightly coiled and its impact was all the more powerful for it. In the last analysis, if this was a hi-fi review of a sub-woofer, then the performance could have done with more ‘slam’ – but it was fascinating to hear Stravinsky’s least characteristic mature score treated to such tender scrutiny.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 27 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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