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John CASKEN on Metier & NMC

Infanta Marina (1994)
Après un silence (violin & piano, 1998)
Firewhirl (1980)
Piano Quartet (1990)

Après un silence (chamber orchestra version, 1998)
Salamandra (1986)
Amarantos (1978)
Distant Variations (1996)

Rachael Pankhurst (cor anglais) Ensemble 10/10 Lesley Hatfield (violin) Andrew Ball (piano) Patricia Rozario (soprano) Richard Casey (piano) David Routledge (violin) David Aspin (viola) Jennifer Langridge (‘cello) Kyra Humphreys (violin) Andrew Ball & Julian Jacobson (2 pianos) Apollo Saxophone Quartet RNCM Wind Orchestra Clark Rundell (conductor)

METIER MSV CD92976 [TT 2Hrs 12mins]

Here is another useful compendium of music by Manchester based composer and teacher John Casken (b.1949), covering some 20 years of his compositional life. He is an adaptable composer, well represented on CD, whose idiom is accessible-modernist.

Each of these eight works is c. a quarter of an hour in duration. Most of the music has literary or dramatic triggers, more relevant perhaps to the composer himself than always to listeners? Of interest also, is that Casken is a painter and provides his own cover illustration.

It is good to have the two versions of Après un silence, to give insight into how he works. I was especially glad to hear again the two-piano Salamandra, which I remember vividly from an early performance in 1986 by the same artists who have joined forces again to record it. The Piano Quartet was a Domus commission, an opportunity to remind readers about my best musical read last year, Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes. Firewhirl sets a George Macbeth poem about revels in Finland; the words are impossible to follow (always difficult with high-lying soprano lines) and the text is not supplied; the six pages of biography could have been shortened to make room for the poem?

The recordings (1992 & 1993 in Manchester) are good and the production is of Metier's usual high standard. We thought the cover picture was shown upside-down, but the composer/painter disagrees!

Casken's Golem (recorded 1989 and acclaimed on its first release by Virgin Classics) has been re-released by NMC on their Ancora Series NMC D113.

It was a powerful evening of opera at the Almeida Festival, I remember well, although in the theatre a great deal of the text was impossible to catch. Now, the problem is different. The high-flown and allusive libretto, written by the composer himself drawing on a wide range of sources, poses something of the same difficulty as Tippett's for his operas. I found following the words in NMC's fully documented production (37 pages, all in English only) tantalising and less compelling than on stage. A good case for a DVD with subtitles!

Another recommendable NMC Casken reissue offers Darting the Skiff (1993); Maharal Dreaming (1991) - an orchestral score derived from Golem; the Cello Concerto (1991) and Vaganza (1985) with Heinrich Schiff and the Northern Sinfonia NMC ANCORA D086.

Sample John Casken's musical idiom by extracts from his music at amazon.co.uk

There is to be a festival in Manchester May 2005; Casken Resonances Festival (3-4 May, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester).


© Peter Grahame Woolf