A fundamental quality of a piece of music is how it makes us experience time. Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler persuade us the world has slowed down; three minutes of punk speeds it up to a frenzy. Richard Causton’s new work for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ik zeg: NU, holds two timeframes in play simultaneously, and brilliantly. Its title, Dutch for “I say: NOW”, is borrowed from a family history written by a 98-year-old relative, but Causton’s piece isn’t really concerned with the book. Rather, it plays on the idea of time coexisting in eras and seconds, and always, always slipping through one’s fingers.
As Causton explained in a brief discussion, the piece has two musical paces. At first, speed grabs us: perky, childlike banter among huddles of woodwind, who play parallel curlicues that evaporate upwards into the quiet swish of a cymbal, then set off again. But below this a longer thread is being spun that eventually coalesces into music that sounds like breathing but is too slow even for sleep. An accordion exhales. The percussion, including a set of microtonal tubular bells made by Causton and his father, set up an impossibly slow descent that sucks in the whole orchestra.
Causton sustains the tension over 25 minutes – quite some achievement. It’s as much thanks to the fascination he creates from the shifting balance between the two speeds as to the glowing colours the BBCSO created for conductor Sakari Oramo.
The Oramo-BBCSO partnership goes from strength to strength. Their performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony was proof: thickly woven yet full of clarity and purposeful detail, the orchestra putty in Oramo’s hands. In between came Schumann’s Cello Concerto, of which Steven Isserlis has long been a champion. As ever, he played it with the joy of a man conducting along to his favourite recording while nobody is watching. His gut-stringed cello is an unassuming beast next to a modern-strung chamber orchestra, but his seamless phrasing and sweet tone drew the ear unfailingly towards him, and his Catalan folksong encore held the hall rapt.