On record: John Pickard: Symphony no.5, Sixteen Sunrises etc (BIS)

Pickard Symphony No.5 (2014); Sixteen Sunrises (2013); Concertante Variations (2011); Toccata after Claudio Monteverdi (1998)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2261SACD

Summary

The fourth release in BIS’s survey of orchestral works by John Pickard (b1963), featuring his latest symphony and two shorter pieces which between them underline the expressive scope of his musical thinking; rounded off by his sparkling transcription of a Baroque perennial.

What’s the music like?

Pickard has long been established as a symphonist of stature, with the Fifth as resourceful as its predecessors – a 32-minute continuity which unfolds an uncompromising argument with real subtlety. A key factor is the writing for three sets of timpani, distributed spatially to the rear of the orchestra, that pursue antiphonal exchanges of motifs and chords but also evolve melodic lines to a degree seldom attempted. This is most evident towards the centre, where timpani lines are heard over dense string harmonies in music as audacious as it is mesmeric.

The piece arrives here via a series of interrelated faster and slower tempi, the latter gradually predominating without any tailing-off of momentum so that the greater prominence of faster tempos in the latter stages feels as if a process coming full-circle. Aligned with this is a four-movement outline – the initial Tempestoso segueing into a Prestissimo then a Maestoso, before the final section culminates in a return to the defiant opening gesture. This is followed by a coda that brings suspenseful calm while also intimating activity still to be encountered.

As to the remaining works, Sixteen Sunrises was written for the Nagoya Philharmonic and takes as its inspiration those sunrises observable over 24 hours from the International Space Station. Pickard conveys this through an intensifying sequence of climaxes whose subsiding into stasis feels more pronounced each time; a process enhanced by some of the composer’s headiest and most atmospheric orchestration. Not that this is in any sense a literal depiction, as his admonishment to listeners who might attempt to count the 16 sunrises makes plain!

By contrast, Concertante Variations was written for the Presteigne Festival (and premiered there by Orchestra Nova) and represents Pickard at his most urbane. Scored for wind quintet, strings and timpani, this unfolds as an introduction, five variations and fugal coda. The theme introduces each wind instrument in turn, then the variations (alternately fast and slow) feature them as ‘first among equals’, before the coda sees the strings assume centre-stage as the piece races towards its affirmative ending – albeit given a droll twist by the laconic closing gesture.

Commissioned by the BBC as the ‘fanfare’ to a festival celebrating four centuries of Italian music, Pickard’s transcription of Monteverdi’s Toccata (the extended version as heard at the start of the 1610 Vespers) includes tuned percussion in what is a scintillating curtain-raiser.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least when the Fifth Symphony is given so powerful a recording (made right after the premiere) by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (spearheaded by truly heroic timpani playing from Steve Barnard, Christina Slominska and Phil Hughes) under Martyn Brabbins, who has championed Pickard over two decades. Other pieces are no less committed in what is a finely balanced programme.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is arguably the best yet in this series (SACD benefits the depth and translucency of this music’s textures), while Pickard’s annotations inform and amuse by turns.

Richard Whitehouse

You can find more information on this release on the BIS website

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Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall

ailish-tynan-tadaaki-otaka

Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxs45/player

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxlqh/player

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxqzy/player

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival