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John CASKEN (b. 1949)
Stolen Airs
Shadowed Pieces for violin and piano (2005-6) [15:48]
Stolen Airs for cello and piano (2015) [16:23]
Six Wooded Pieces for solo piano (2019) [15:35]
Serpents of Wisdom for horn and piano (2016) [11:08]
Piano Trio (2002) [20:35]
Alasdair Beatson, Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
Philip Higham (cello)
Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn)
Gould Piano Trio
rec. 2019, Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, The University of Manchester & Cardiff University School of Music

To my detriment, I have listened to little of John Casken’s music over the years. However, I have come to realise that the paradigm for enjoying his work is understanding its powerful connection to landscape, not only ‘landscape’ in general, but the composer’s home county. Clearly, this is a rule of thumb, but I think it is helpful. Casken lives in the beautiful, varied and inspiring county of Northumberland, ‘not far from the Scottish Borders’ and within sight of the most northerly English mountain, The Cheviot. He is also close to the sea. One does not need to be an artist, historian, sage or theologian to realise that this magical part of the country is characterised by ‘changing colours, huge skies, deep historical roots’ and the source of the earliest poem written in English. Interestingly, Casken was asked to describe his music in five words; he replied: ‘windswept, dreamy, turbulent, melancholic and painterly.’ This is a powerful hermeneutic towards appreciating his music.

The first item on this CD is Shadowed Pieces, dating from 2005-2006 and written for violin and piano. The composer explains that it evokes an ‘imaginary landscape’ populated by ‘impressions and memories.’ The unity of this work is derived from its diversity: each one of the ‘shadows’ seems to inhabit a different corner of the topography. Whether it is a ‘far-away song’, ‘a quickening moon’ or ‘forgotten voices’, this music creates an image of a lost world, be it personal, physical, or historical. Casken explains that the final movement, ‘…by the harrowed land’ is ambiguous; it could refer to a ploughed field or an image of a harrowing experience like death or war. The entire work is interesting and accessible but avoid it if you are feeling down, as it is deliberately depressing.

Composed and premiered around 2015, Stolen Airs was inspired by Sylvie and the Songman, a children’s book by Tim Binding. It does not matter too much what the plot of this novel is, save to say that it involves the theft of the voices of birds, animals, and humans. Only if a musical secret is given to the protagonist, will they be returned. The Songman tempts Sylvie to reveal this information by restoring her voice. He sings to her three ‘stolen airs’ but unfortunately for the thief, she recalls a melody her mother sang to her and the spell is broken. The work is composed in five parts: the dark place of no song, the three folksongs and her mother’s air. It is a long work, lasting nearly twenty minutes. I think I would have thought of a different title and I guess most listeners would be quite happy if it had been abstract. Darkness to light is the key emotion. I certainly ignored the ‘programme’ whilst listening to this captivating piece. There is a lot here that is downright beautiful, with much that is optimistic and uplifting. Certainly, this piece does not need a trivial scenario to make its point as an effective work.

Six Wooded Pieces are a concatenation of two earlier piano pieces: The Haunting Bough (1999) and Pleasure Ground (2012). The composer writes that he ‘decided to incorporate these in a new suite extending the theme of trees and wood, and further developing my interest in the poetry, history and appearance of landscape and its features as extra-musical sources.’ Each piece has a related title: ‘Haunting Bough I’, ‘Swinging Bough’, ‘Shaded Bough’, ‘Weathered Bough’ and ‘Silvered Bough’. The last piece is the second tranche of Haunting Bough derived from the 1999 work. The music may reflect a woodland known to the composer or may just be generic. Once again, I enjoyed the sound of these beautifully written and well performed pieces but struggled to provide the context. I feel that the listener is meant to read more into this work than is there. Six Pieces would have been an ideal title.

The Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s poem, ‘Celtic Cross’ provided the background for Serpents of Wisdom. The title comes from the last line of the poem where the makar wonders if the serpents somehow understand love. I think that MacCaig is suggesting that the monument displays a general indifference to nature’s suffering, but possibly reveals a glimpse of something a little more positive. Casken states that ‘the idea of plaiting and entwining plays an important part in the unfolding of the piece.’ The music is written for horn and piano. It opens with brazen fanfares and after a quieter moment comes to a resigned conclusion. For me, it lacks any empathy with ‘Celtic’ culture. It does not help me understand death, time, indifference or even love. The idea seems forced on the music or vice versa. If Casken had called the piece a Fantasy, Movement or Andromeda M31 it would have served just a well. But the music is brilliant and the interplay between soloists is first rate, even if the music is not in the least suggestive of ‘wise snakes’.

I am on safer ground with the last work on this CD – Piano Trio but even here each movement is given a poetic title, which must have some relevance. The music has been reworked from Casken’s opera God’s Liar which was based on Tolstoy’s short story Father Sergius. I do not think that the theme of that opera is relevant here. Certainly, there is no allusion to the priest cutting off his finger or the attempted seduction in his hermetic cell. The movements are entitled ‘shadows’, ‘striding the line’ ‘dreams’ ‘dancing the line’ and ‘memories.’ I enjoyed this vibrant and exciting work from the first note to the last. Despite being derived from the opera, it is ideally suited to the piano trio medium. John Casken has created a bewitching score that provides the listener with an uplifting and optimistic experience.

The liner notes by the composer are excellent. There are detailed discussions about each piece, a short biography of the composer and the usual information about the performers. The artwork on the cover by Olivia Lomenech Gill is noteworthy and has a great affinity with this music. All the pieces are played with enthusiasm and sympathy. The recording is excellent.

I enjoyed this; any reader who has persevered with my review so far will have realised that I have struggled with the ‘picturesque’ titles of some of these compositions. It is not that I mind what a previous generation would have called ‘character pieces’, it is just that I feel that some of them detract from what is excellent absolute music and I do not find it necessary to get bogged down in ‘boughs’ ‘shadows’ and ‘serpents’ to enjoy it. Other listeners (and presumably the composer) will wholeheartedly disagree with me. If I want a pictorial prop all I need is an image of the North Sea or the recollection of a walk around Lindisfarne in Northumberland.

John France

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