La Terra Impareggiabile
Michael Farnsworth, baritone; Huw Watkins, piano
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor
Richard Causton teaches at the University of Cambridge. His latest recording for NMC, a label with which he has long been associated, La Terra Impareggiabile, features a recent orchestra piece that has already garnered much acclaim, and a song cycle that took twenty-six years to finalize. The contrasts between these pieces demonstrate the breadth of Causton’s oeuvre, and the varied ways in which he approaches composing particular pieces.
Ik seg: NU (“I say: NOW) (2019) has an interesting backstory for its title. Solomon Van Son, a Dutch relative of Causton’s, wrote a family history dating back some 730 years. But the impetus for its writing came from hearing his ten-year old grand-nephew state: ”I say now now, and a moment later it is already history.”
Causton’s response to this is a piece that deals with time in a dual layer, a foregrounded one of quick gestures and a slower, deliberate background. Fleet wind figures dominate the former, while pizzicato pulsations delineate the latter. Long glissandos in the strings bridge the gap between these two layers and are featured in the middle section. Melodic gestures recur, but there is also an accumulation of freer material that underscores the tempo relationships. To the glissandos are added angular lines that once again feature fast wind passages. The fast music drops away and gradually articulated pitched percussion joins the ambling bass line. Various sections join the slow layer’s material, with it being passed from instrument to instrument with chimes a persistent background. Slowed down versions of the wind melodies, employing glissandos this time, bring the music back to two layers and a more punctilious demeanor. A buildup with the faster layer coming to the fore gives one the impression that the piece will take a victory lap. Just before the close however, the slower layer again is asserted, pianissimo and adorned with string harmonics. It is a startling and effective way to close the piece.
La Terra Impareggiabile is a song cycle setting the poetry of the hermetic writer Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968). In broad strokes, it deals with the life cycle. Paradoxically, Causton began with the last song and worked his way back. The cycle’s gestation was prolonged and arduous, but convinced the composer to continue making work. The results, both of the cycle and the body of music Causton has written, speak to the wisdom of that decision.
For a time an English teacher in Milan, Causton’s fluency with the Italian language makes the speech rhythms and expressive devices used in the songs particularly effective. Indeed, Causton has described “a very physical relationship” between words, voice, and music that he encountered at the piano during the process of composition.
Likewise, Baritone Marcus Farnsworth is sensitive to even the most subtle inflections, and pianist Huw Watkins creates a rich, sonorous sound that not only provides support for Farnsworth, but also responds to the character of the poems, which explore the two perennial themes of love and death.
Writ large or in the intimacy of song, Causton’s music is imaginatively written in an attractive idiom. La Terra Impareggiabile is one of our favorite recordings of 2022.