On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here