Wood/Casken: Piano Concerto

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Wood/Casken
LABELS: Collins 20th Century Plus
WORKS: Piano Concerto
PERFORMER: Joanna MacGregor (piano); BBC SO/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: 20072 DDD
Hugh Wood’s Piano Concerto, a 1991 Proms commission, was written especially for his former Cambridge student Joanna MacGregor, whose enthusiams embrace both jazz and ‘serious’ 20th-century music. Wood’s Schoenbergian sympathies are very evident, not only in the use of serialism, angular melodic leaps, obsessive rhythms and Classical three-movement form, but in the nightmare imagery and wistful nostalgia so much more at home in Freudian Vienna than Nineties Britain. They sit uneasily alongside the Nat King Cole number ‘Sweet Lorraine’ which forms the basis of the second movement’s variations and infiltrates the outer movements. MacGregor’s flamboyant delivery has certainly won this not unattractive work its admirers, but, for me, its glittering Romantic gestures mask a distinctly hollow centre.

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Not so John Casken’s Cello Concerto. Of more modest proportions, its substance is more deeply buried and bears closer scrutiny. Don’t be deterred by its somewhat dour countenance and predominantly autumnal colours. Lyricism is well to the fore, aligning it with the grand British cello concerto tradition of Elgar, Delius and Finzi – an affinity further emphasised by its impressionistic intent and rhapsodic design. In its depiction of bleak, northern landscapes, there are similarities, too, with Maxwell Davies’s music, especially his Strathclyde Concerto No. 2 (also for cello); Casken’s, however, offers the greater, purely musical, rewards. Antony Bye