CASKEN Deadly Pleasures BRITTEN Six Metamorphoses after Ovid
The title of this debut disc from the Counterpoise ensemble comes from its opening work, John Casken’s Deadly Pleasures, a setting of Pushkin’s poem ‘Egyptian Nights’ as translated and completed by DM Thomas. And what a fascinating, ear-catching, image-conjuring work it is. Casken has dramatically embraced and revivified the technique of melodrama, the musical form that came into being in the mid-18th century and which deploys a spoken voice against an instrumental backcloth.
Backcloth is in fact too anodyne a word to describe what Casken does here, for the words of this lubricious tale of Cleopatra and her three one-night stands inspire music that closely weaves itself into the fabric of the action, sometimes forming sensuous tendrils of sound, at others creating an atmosphere of eerie apprehension and, when Cleopatra’s first bedmate is slaughtered at dawn, punctuating the score with the ominous thud of the falling axe. At almost half an hour this is a substantial work but it is not a minute too long: its narrative thread is vividly characterised and luxuriantly enunciated by Donald Maxwell, and Counterpoise’s performance is strikingly dynamic.
David Matthews’s Actaeon, to a text by Ted Hughes after Ovid, is an astutely chosen companion piece, another melodrama, this time with Eleanor Bron as the mellifluous, animated, subtly inflected narrator in a work that distils Actaeon’s plight and flight with vibrant force and focus. In these works and the two by Britten, Counterpoise come across as an ensemble at the top of their game.