Composer John Casken created a musical embrace in tonight’s Sage Gateshead Late Mix concert, enfolding works by his close friends and mentors, Toru Takemitsu and Witold Lutosławski, inside two of his own compositions. In a brief introduction, John Casken also highlighted the importance to his career of the ten years that he had spent as Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Composer-in-Association, so the programme that he had chosen for tonight clearly reflected personal relationships and musical support.

John Casken © Tom Bangbala
John Casken
© Tom Bangbala

The programme opened with Casken’s Shadowed Pieces, a set of six short fantasies for violin and piano, inspired by the landscape around the composer’s home in Northumberland. The titles of the movements and the highly descriptive musical language evoke a landscape where something troubling has taken place, perhaps something from the distant history or legends of these wild borderlands. The shadowing was literal in the opening, as the piano echoed the violin’s short rising phrases and similarly vivid word painting occurred again during the piece – ghostly quarter-tones for the shadows of the past, a thicker texture with double stopping and fatter piano chords for the “forgotten voices”, and biting harmonies and broken chords for the double-meaning of the “harrowed land”. The duo of violinist Alexandra Raikhlina and pianist John Reid played with poise throughout, creating delicate little snatches of sound, with a very clean violin tone and crisply articulated piano.

Takemitsu’s Entre-Temps that followed continued the sense of something caught out of time; this was very characteristic Takemitsu, with musical colours and textures suspended, static in mid-air. The piece is scored for string quartet with an oboe breaking through the texture. The four string players showed impressive unanimity on their fragmented blocks of sound, whilst oboist Stephen Hudson threaded the pieces together with demandingly long phrases, played with gorgeous varieties of tone and a delicate vibrato.

If the first two pieces had suspended time, the second half of the concert was full of rhythmic energy to set the clock ticking again. Casken’s Winter Reels explores the role that songs and dance traditionally play in getting people through the rigours of winter. The first of these a warming dance swung between icy string chords, coloured by metallic percussion, and more vigorous passages that suggested foot-stamping and chattering teeth. Casken’s inventive use of instrumental texture was what really made this piece work –  particularly the phalanx of tuned and untuned percussion instruments, all nimbly controlled by one player, Adrian Spillett, who darted around like a skater from one desk to another and looked as if he was having a lot of fun. The final dance opened with the gorgeously warm combination of bass clarinet and alto flute that continued the fluttering shivers of the previous movement, before an insistent drumbeat gradually forced everyone to dance – and the piece skidded to a halt with everyone playing a final dance tune together.

The highlight of the concert though was undoubtedly the performance by Kyra Humphreys and John Reid of Lutosławski’s dazzling Partita for solo violin and piano. Not only is the piece technically demanding for both players, it also requires the musicians to navigate seamlessly between abrupt changes of mood, from violent agitation to expressive legato playing and back again. Humphreys’ violin tone was smooth as honey throughout and even the very percussive repeated notes never sounded harsh. She and John Reid bounced off each other with gusto in the opening movement and were impressively coordinated as the two parts move in and out of synch with each other in the work’s closing bars. The sad little rising and falling unaccompanied violin motifs of the second Ad Libitum passage were particularly beautiful and they were echoed by elegant little tumbling runs on the piano before the sound of a tolling bell on the piano launched the duo into the mad dance of the final Presto, in which Humphreys maintained the frantic pulse in her long notes as much as in the insanely fast passages, bringing the piece to its thrilling close.