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: Havergal Brian – Symphonies 2 & 14 (Dutton Epoch)

havergal-brian

 

Havergal Brian Symphonies – No. 2 in E minor (1931); No. 14 in F minor (1960)

Royal Scottish National Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Summary

Dutton continues its traversal of Havergal Brian’s symphonies in the company of the Royal Scottish National and Martyn Brabbins, whose live recording of the Gothic symphony from the 2011 Proms (Hyperion CDA67971/2) confirmed a Brian interpreter of real perception.

What’s the music like?

Brabbins and the RSNO make a persuasive case for the Fourteenth Symphony, unheard since its premiere by Edward Downes in 1969 and here receiving its first recording. In his seminal study of Brian’s symphonies (Kahn & Averill), the late Malcolm MacDonald considered this to be the worst of the whole cycle – but it has arguably greater cohesion than the comparable one-movement works on either side; notably with the brooding introduction that segues into a resolute Allegro then a ‘slow movement’ whose restiveness is typically Brian. The return of the Adagio as a formal pivot brings the most dramatic music, but neither the intermezzo nor Allegro sections that follows sustains momentum on the way to a brutally decisive coda. Less than the sum of its best parts, No. 14 is by no means the low-point as has often been credited.

Brian was never to hear his Second Symphony, its first performance by Leslie Head in 1973 followed in 1979 by a broadcast with Charles Mackerras. An earlier studio recording by Tony Rowe and the Moscow Symphony (Naxos 8.570506) did it scant justice, but Brabbins gets far closer to the heart of a work inspired by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen, and described by Brian as representative of ‘‘MAN in his cosmic loneliness: ambition, loves, battles, death’’.

With its glowering woodwind and stark pizzicato strings over three sets of timpani, the first movement’s Adagio introduction is a striking invention and if the main themes of its Allegro are a little inflexibly drawn, Brabbins ensures their purposeful correlation through an eventful development and on to a coda that collapses into darkness. Even finer is the slow movement whose sequence of developing variations on a plangent cor anglais melody which finds Brian at his most questing harmonically; its dense textures scrupulously rendered here. The scherzo adds eight horns – making a total of 16 – organ and two pianos to a large orchestra, though its surging climactic pages are less memorable than the expectant and resigned music either side. A funereal procession, the finale’s Wagnerian gestures do not impede its powerful unfolding to an eloquent episode for divided cellos, before it builds to a baleful climax and fateful close.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Undeniably among Brian’s lesser symphonies, the Fourteenth can at last be judged on its own terms (the central climax arresting in context), while the Second’s head-on confronting of late-Romantic symphonism at the height of European neo-classicism yields often impressive results; not least in the oblique rhetoric of its Andante (might Brian have heard Henry Wood’s Proms performance of Myaskovsky’s Silentium in 1929?). The status of Brian as one of the last century’s most individual composers is further reinforced.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As on previous Dutton releases, the sound yields admirable detail within its spacious sound balance, with John Pickard’s notes as extensive as they are informative. A worthwhile coupling of these contrasted yet characteristic works from different periods of Brian’s output.

Richard Whitehouse

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian’s ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ + Rubbra & Grøndahl

martyn-brabbins

Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins (above) in a concert recorded at the orchestra’s home in Maida Vale

Rubbra Symphony No.11 Op. 153 (1979)

Grøndahl Trombone Concerto (1924)

Brian Symphony No.6 Sinfonia tragica (1948)

Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Maida Vale Studios, Tuesday 11 October

The BBC Symphony continues to schedule some of its most distinctive concerts at its Maida Vale studios, and this afternoon saw Martyn Brabbins at the helm for a sequence of English and Danish music – all being pieces that are rarely, if ever, encountered in UK concert halls.

When Edmund Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony received its premiere at the 1980 Proms, it must have felt appreciably more distant in aesthetic than it now does. Yet timelessness was central to the composer’s music; nowhere more than this 18-minute summation of both his symphonic and orchestral thinking. Its two continuous sections – a ‘moderate’ Andante, then a ‘calm and serene’ Adagio – offer only incremental expressive change, though the cumulative emotional impact as Rubbra evolves intervallic motifs via a seamless process of developing variation is undoubted; as also his fashioning of alternately diaphanous and granitic instrumentation. This latter was superbly rendered by the BBCSO, with Brabbins attentive to the music’s wealth of detail and its by no means untroubled emergence towards an eloquent plateau of tranquillity.

jorgen-van-rijenNext came a welcome revival for the Trombone Concerto by Launy Grøndahl, best known as a conductor (he premiered Robert Simpson’s First Symphony in Copenhagen) but who, on the basis of those pieces to have been recorded, evinced a modest while appealing compositional talent.

The outer movements of his concerto alternate between trenchant and lyrical ideas, the latter having a deftness to offset the hints of rhythmic stolidity elsewhere, but it is the central Andante – in its initial blues-inflected theme and resourceful deployment of piano – that most readily confirms its composer’s prowess. Here, as throughout the piece, Jörgen van Rijen (above) was unfailingly perceptive – underlining the extent to which Grøndahl, a violinist by training, had mastered the technical range of an instrument whose overall potential remains to be realized.

During the break, Van Rijn performed Slipstream by the German-born composer and metal guitarist Florian Magnus Maier (b1973) – its interplay of live playing and recorded repetition, via a loop-station operated by the musician, affording a fresh twist to Reich-style minimalism.

Brabbins has championed Havergal Brian extensively on disc; his live advocacy so far limited (!) to a revival of the Gothic symphony at the 2011 Proms. At just under 20 minutes, Sinfonia tragica comes near the opposite end (albeit conceptually) of his orchestral output. Envisaged as the prelude to an opera on J. M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows that was soon abandoned, it was not incorporated into his canon for two decades, yet its symphonic status is not hard to discern.

The BBCSO duly had the measure of its progress, as unpredictable as it is inevitable – from the fugitive gestures of its opening section, through the (surprisingly?) long-breathed melodic writing at its centre, to the eruptive activity and stoic processional of its final pages. A persuasive reading of a piece that ranks among its composer’s most immediate utterances.

Indeed, this was a persuasive concert overall – one that made light of the turgid accusations sometimes levelled at Rubbra, or the unplayability too often associated with Brian. Hopefully the BBCSO and Brabbins will continue their exploration of this rewarding music at future studio concerts.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during November – further details to follow