Classical Music Review: Casken premiere; Philharmonia / Slatkin Royal F estival Hall, London

The enchantment of a piece by John Casken begins with its name. Stellar constellations, legends and creatures of myth have all stood guard over his title pages, and in his latest work, premiered on Tuesday by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, the choice fell on Sortilege, the French word for sorcery, magic and spells. Even so, the enchantment's more than skin deep. Charms mean games, a sense of which is important to all his music. Games are a balancing act between freedom and restraint; artistic games, no less than acts of gambling, are points of contact with the mysterious power of raw destiny.

Not that Sortilege itself was anything less than meticulously argued and presented. As in his previous orchestral pieces, Orion over Farne and the recent Violin Concerto, the command of instrumental forces, including prominent tuned percussion and those rare concert-hall visitors, the flugelhorn and bass oboe, was ingenious. The mystery lay wrapped in the programme, a tale of corruption at the court of King Arthur, as told in Tennyson's poem Merlin and Vivien. The treachery of the latter against the former involved more voluptuous charms than those involved at the court of Birtwistle's Gawain. Yet in another sense, and without irony (a commodity rare in Casken's oeuvre), the more compelling magic was a question of how this Pre-Raphaelite text acted on what we actually heard.

Music tells tales through its power of impressions and onomatopoeia, and through games of arrival and departure that the story suggests through signposts of its own making. Strong on atmosphere, Sortilege followed its own path with regard to narrative, not to its own disadvantage, but through a firm sense of a purely musical direction. A hypnotic first canto, full of woodwind tracery and riven with impulsive outbursts, was followed by a longer movement that led, via some of Casken's most delicate imaginings to date, to a racy conclusion of violent energy released and expressed. Unequal yet indivisible, both parts turned apparent innocence into menace and deceit, just like the wiles of Vivien. As in other Casken scores, knowing the programme was an essential part of grasping the musical mood. But just how the poem paced the notes from bar to bar was a gameplan the composer kept quietly to himself.

Despite their cosmic reference, the titles in Holst's Planets Suite are vague enough for listeners to impress their own feelings within this set of extended genre pieces. Heard live, as distinct from their usual setting of ambient muzak, they impressed not only for their sheer brilliance, but for the enigma of their composer, reserved and ascetic, yet rising for once to a pitch of orgasmic fury - and all without a whiff of folk- song. Leonard Slatkin, leading American conductor of English music, directed a terrifying "Mars", and a no less disturbing "Saturn", bringer of old age - and, with the Philharmonia strings in The Lark Ascending, offered violinist Christopher Warren-Green a hushed background of utter pastoral serenity.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices