John Casken (born 1949) - Winter Reels

John Casken (b. 1949)
Winter Reels (world premiere)

Commissioned by Psappha through the finacial support of the Britten-Pears Foundation and The Ida Carroll Trust

I. a warming dance
II. a cold song
III. a spirited gathering

Written for six players – the standard lineup of Pierrot lunaire quintet plus percussionist – this work might seem to glance back to the compositions for mixed quartet with which Casken made his name: Music for the Crabbing Sun and Music for a Tawny-Gold Day. For all the steady stylistic development of the intervening three and a half decades, the new piece has a similar strength in being at once toughly made and expressively generous, urgent and colourful. As the titles might suggest, there is continuity, too, in Casken’s feeling for landscape and climate, particularly for the landscape and climate of northern England, where he was born, and where he has lived ever since – a landscape and a climate in which there are human figures, bracing themselves to the wind, scanning the horizon. His present domicile is in a remote part of Northumberland, which is, he has said, relevant to this piece: ‘Winter was reeling outside the window when I was composing the work.’

Winter Reels has three movements, playing together for about twenty minutes. First come powerful chords for the full ensemble, chords of a kind that run through the piece and embed it in a dense but purposeful harmony. Then, in wave upon wave, athletic triplets begin to assemble themselves until the ‘warming dance’ can take off. There is a climax on a widely spread chord, followed by memories of the dance and of how it all started.

With a decrease in speed, ‘a cold song’ takes place largely in the treble register and often features metal resonances from the percussionist, on tubaphone (a glockenspiel-like instrument with tubes instead of plates), bells, gong and steel pan. The song itself, given mostly to the cello, rises from beneath.

The quick finale, ‘a spirited gathering’, is set off by irresistible drum rhythms that rapidly encourage the instruments to dance together again, through changing groupings but with continuing exuberance.

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