The Gardner of Aleppo (2016)
Daughters of Zion (2016)*
Serenata Concertata (1984)**
Three Chicken Studies (2008)
The Phagotus of Afranio (1992)
*Susan Bickley (mezzo); **Philippa Davies (flute); Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins
BIS BIS 2461 SACD [79’22”]
Producer / Engineer Simon Fox-Gál
Recorded September 2018 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
BIS continues its coverage of music by John Pickard (b. 1963) with an extensive overview of chamber works surveying more than three decades of creativity, in performances by the Nash Ensemble that do ample justice to this composer’s combative while always accessible music.
What’s the music like?
Earliest is Serenata Concertata, written when Pickard was still an undergraduate and his first paid commission. Essentially a concerto for flute and five instruments, it unfolds continuously from a haunting Cadenza I then a pensive Aria I to the Scherzo-Notturno whose accrued energy carries over into the climactic Cadenza II, before Aria II brings an emotional poise that gradually dies away towards the close. Whatever its passing influences, Pickardian traits are everywhere apparent and the composer was surely right to keep this work in his catalogue.
Philippa Davies makes a fine showing, as does Ursula Leveaux in The Phagotus of Afranio – the title that of a fanciful forerunner of the bassoon, whose Hoffnung-like presence evinces humour and no little pathos in this entertaining ‘capriccio’. Hardly less diverting, the Three Chicken Studies evoke its subjects respectively laying, feeding then fighting in miniatures, as rendered by Gareth Hulse, both winsome and insouciant (and fully deserving of inclusion in Pickard’s catalogue). Alone among these pieces, Snowbound has been previously recorded (Toccata Classics) – the new account being more spacious and more graphic in its depiction of a familiar landscape as rendered unrecognizable through music that cannily emphasizes those darker sonorities of bass clarinet, cello and piano on route to a ‘glacial’ denouement.
The remaining three works followed in the wake of the imposing Fifth Symphony and testify to the variety of Pickard’s approach irrespective of genre or instrumentation. Setting a text by Gavin D’Costa, Daughters of Zion relates the fateful decision of Mary and its consequences in music by turns ominous and plangent – superbly sung by Susan Bickley. No less resonant in emotional impact, The Gardner of Aleppo was inspired by an incident in the Syrian civil war, where a flower-seller continued to ply his wares in the face of heavy bombardment up until his untimely death. Here, too, flute, viola and harp make for a (surprisingly?) tensile combination across its trajectory of evocation, animation and recollection. By comparison, Ghost-Train might appear humorous in its (often graphic) portrayal of the once obligatory fairground ride; as represented by a perpetuum mobile whose stealthy refrain finds contrast with sundry episodes of a more or less grotesque nature, duly culminating in an apotheosis whose sombre equivocation suggests this to be a journey from which there can be no return.
Does it all work?
Yes, given the alacrity with which these musicians respond to music that, for all its textural and harmonic intricacy, conveys that expressive immediacy manifest throughout Pickard’s output. By so doing, moreover, the stylistic consistency of his idiom is no less in evidence.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. Sound is well up to BIS’s customary standards as to clarity and perspective, with the composer’s booklet note typical in its keen observation and wry humour. Further releases of Pickard’s music, not least his first three symphonies, will hopefully follow from this source.
You can discover more about this release at the BIS website, where you can also purchase the recording.