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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On record: Music For My Love (Toccata)

music-for-my-love

Brahms (arr. Söderlind) Von ewiger Liebe
Casulana (arr. C. Matthews) Il vostro dipartir
Dean Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit)
Elcock Song for Yodit, Op. 23
Ford Sleep
Holloway Music for Yodit
Kerem A Farewell for Yodit
Lord (arr. Mann) Zarabanda Solitaria
Pickard …forbidding mourning…
Ruders Lullaby for Yodit
Söderlind 15 Variations on a Norwegian Folktune

Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Summary

The Music For My Love project has its basis in the life, cut short by cancer, of Yodit Tekle – the Eritrean-born partner of Martin Anderson, whose desire to commemorate her in music led to his contacting those composers he knew personally, resulting in over 100 pieces for string orchestra which he intends to record for his Toccata Classics label. This first volume takes in eight pieces and three arrangements, ranging from around two minutes to a full quarter-hour.

What’s the music like?

Appreciably more varied in expression than might be expected given the context.

Among the original pieces, Robin Holloway has written a pensive elegy whose dance-like central section offers but minimal contrast, whereas Poul Ruders contributes a wistful and affecting lullaby. Mikhel Kerem’s miniature amply sustains its rapt atmosphere, while Andrew Ford takes an earlier vocal setting for his gentle round-lay. Steve Elcock conveys a consolatory mood via the subtlest of means, then Brett Dean draws on an earlier piano piece in music of ethereally diffused harmony. John Pickard draws more obliquely upon an earlier cello piece for what is the most animated of these works in its textural contrasts, while Ragnar Söderlind takes the Norwegian folksong Oh, the cooling wind as the basis for 15 variations whose cumulative impact feels a little diffused in context – for all that its emotional consistency is undeniable.

Among the arrangements, the late Jon Lord’s evocative sarabande for string quartet responds effortlessly to Paul Mann’s skilful adaptation. Framing the sequence overall, Söderlind makes of Brahms’s song a threnody of Grieg-like plaintiveness, whereas Colin Matthews draws out the assertive eloquence inherent in a madrigal by the still little-known Maddalena Casulana.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that it would have been all too easy to assemble a programme unrelieved in its emotional range. Thanks to judicious sequencing of the pieces at hand, this disc amply fulfils its commemorative function while also making for an hour’s absorbing listen in its own right.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, not least as the Debrecen-based Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra responds with commitment to Paul Mann’s direction. The sound endows the string textures with plenty of space and definition, while booklet annotations are as comprehensive as ever from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse

Further instalments in this worthwhile project are much anticipated: in the meantime, read more about its continuation via the Toccata Classics website

On record: Now Comes Beauty – Commissions from the English Music Festival

now-comes-beauty

Richard Blackford Spirited (2013)

Paul Carr Now Comes Beauty (2009); Suddenly It’s Evening (2013)

Matthew Curtis A Festival Overture (2008)

Philip Lane Aubade Joyeuse (1986)

Paul Lewis Norfolk Suite (2013)

David Matthews White Nights Op.26 (1980)

David Owen Norris Piano Concerto (2008)

John Pickard Binyon Songs (2015)

Christopher Wright Legend (2013)

Roderick Williams (baritone – Pickard); Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin – Carr & David Matthews); David Owen Norris (piano); BBC Concert Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes (Blackford), Gavin Sutherland (all others)

EM Records

Summary

Over the decade of its existence, the English Music Festival has revived an impressive number of works from (not always deserved) obscurity and commissioned numerous others. Some of the latter are brought together on this set, with a stylistic range wider than might be supposed.

What’s the music like?

The discs adopt a roughly similar layout, each opening with an overture as makes for a lively curtain-raiser. How else to describe A Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis (b1959), its bustle offset by a lyrical melody redolent of those in Sullivan’s Irish Symphony, whereas Spirited by Richard Blackford (b1954) adds a hint of Adams-like minimalism to broaden the transatlantic appeal of his engaging piece. Of the two works featuring solo violin, White Nights by David Matthews (b1943) draws on Dostoevsky (via Bresson) and the composer’s own experiences in a haunting and eventful nocturne – later remodelled as the opening movement of his First Violin Concerto. More limited in its content and expressive range, Suddenly It’s Evening by Paul Carr (b1961) exudes a wistfully elegiac air that is no less fully conveyed by Rupert Marshall-Luck.

Carr also appears on the other disc with Now Comes Beauty, formerly a song then a motet before emerging as a miniature for strings ideal for the ‘Smooth Classics’ slot on Classic FM. Aubade Joyeuse by Philip Lane (b1950) is (to quote the composer) an ‘introduction and allegro’ that assumes mounting activity prior to its climactic fugato and vigorous close. Firmly in the lineage of British geographical pieces, Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis (b1943) takes in the heroic setting of Castle Rising, evocative ruins of Wymondham Abbey, ruminative calm of Ranworth Broad and bustling jollity of Norwich Market over its appealing course. Further down the east coast, the Suffolk hamlet of Shingle Street had inspired Legend by Christopher Wright (b1954), its sombre yet affecting mood amply evoking the aura of this isolated place.

Of the works ending each disc, the Piano Concerto by David Owen Norris (b1953) is a three-movement entity on ostensibly Classical lines. The solo writing is as idiomatic and assured as might be expected from this fine pianist, with that for orchestra hardly less idiomatic. Yet after a well-argued Allegro, the Andante loses its way in misplaced rhetoric and emotional cliché, with the finale too reliant on its underlying jig rhythm prior to an overstretched and predictable apotheosis. ‘‘Keys have personalities’’ says the composer: his music could do with more of it.

Binyon Songs by John Pickard (b1963) might well have emerged as a song-cycle malgré-lui, but the motivic cohesion and expressive logic with which these unfold cannot be gainsaid. The first four may be relatively brief, yet the wrenching ambivalence of Nature, tenuous hope of Sowing Seed, tensile anger of Autumn Song and suffused rapture of When all the World is Hidden make their mark no less acutely than the expansive The Burning of the Leaves that makes for a cathartic ending. Roderick Williams sings with his customary poise and eloquence.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of the complementary and contrasting aspects which inform this collection as a whole. The set is further enhanced by the excellence of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s playing, with Owain Arwel Hughes making a welcome appearance in the two overtures and the rest of the programme directed with unstinting conviction by Gavin Sutherland. The recorded sound takes full advantage of Watford Colosseum’s spacious immediacy, while the booklet includes detailed overviews of each work and composer together with full texts for the Binyon settings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Since its inception, EM Records has amassed a notable catalogue of predominantly first recordings – with the present release among its most ambitious and rewarding. Uneven in overall quality though it may be, the best of the music here deserves the widest dissemination.

Richard Whitehouse

In concert – Bristol University SO / John Pickard – The Vision of Cleopatra

bristol-uso-pickardImage credit: Bhagesh Sachania

Eve Daniell (soprano), Rachael Cox (mezzo-soprano), Angharad Lyddon (contralto), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor), Alexander Learmonth (baritone), Bristol University Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra / John Pickard

Victoria Rooms, Bristol; Saturday 12th March, 2016

Beethoven Mass in C, Op.86 (1807)

Brian The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The regular concerts given by the Bristol University Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon for innovative programming, as was proved this evening with the first performance in 107 years of the most ambitious earlier work by Havergal Brian – his cantata The Vision of Cleopatra.

The work was finished in 1907 and premiered at the Southport Festival two years on, where it enjoyed a succès d’estime but no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts during the 1941 Blitz made any revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard undertook the new orchestration that received its first hearing tonight. Brian’s orchestral pieces from the 1900s offered a viable point of departure, though Cleopatra is hardly more indebted to these than to Pickard’s own large-scale works. The outcome is highly audacious within the context of British music from this period, notably for its taking on board those possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but which Brian had most likely studied from the score and absorbed its innovations accordingly.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s rather tepid libretto tries hard to suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the orchestral Slave Dance that functions as a lively overture, the cantata unfolds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements: a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed, in its turn, by an expansive aria for the former; divided by a speculative choral interlude and concluded by a Funeral March of stark immediacy. So systematic yet by no means inflexible a formal trajectory serves to predicate expressive continuity over scenic evocation, a sure pointer to Brian’s future as a leading mid-century symphonist who operated at an intriguing remove from the Modernism of this period.

The Vision of Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there was little tentative or underwhelming about tonight’s rendition. Eve Daniell was sympathetic as Iris and Rachael Cox even more so as Charmion, complementing each other effectively as the retainers, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made an ardent showing as Antony whose tendency to histrionics was understandable. Angharad Lyddon, though, stole the show (as she needed to) as Cleopatra – bringing real eloquence to her climactic aria while evincing palpable depth of tone that made light of Brian’s exacting demands. Bristol University Choral Society sang with evident lustre, and Pickard secured a committed response from his forces – alive to those audacities that the composer doubtless put into his orchestral writing and which were grippingly to the fore here.

The first half had seen a welcome revival of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a work destined to live in the shadow of its ‘solemn’ successor but whose almost cyclical constuction is allied to a generosity of spirit in itself affecting. Some fine choral and solo singing – notably from the baritone Alexander Learmonth – was allied to a perceptive interpretation which (rightly) put emotional emphasis on the Benedictus, most enquiring of this work’s sections whose repose communicated itself to tonight’s listeners as surely as it eluded those hearing it 109 years ago.