John Pickard’s Unusual, Intense Music

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PICKARD: Symphony No. 5. 16 Sunrises. Concertante Variations.* Toccata (After Monteverdi) / *Martin Featherstone, flautist; *Geoffrey Cox, oboist; *Nicholas Cox, clarinetist; *Jarosław Augustyniak, bassoonist; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Martyn Brabbins, conductor / Bis SACD 2261

John Pickard, born in 1963, is one of those rare British composers whose work is primarily promoted by a Scandinavian label, Bis. I was very much taken by his tone poems Channel Firing, The Flight of Icarus and The Spindle of Necessity on Bis 1578 as well as by his Fourth Symphony (“Gaia”) and Eden on Bis 2061. Now we have his fifth symphony as well as some incidental pieces, including his own arrangement of a “Toccata” by Monteverdi.

Pickard’s harmonic language is, despite all the extended chords and clashing harmonies, essentially tonal, but his use of harmony is only one of his unique features. He is also a master of unusual timbral blends, particularly writing pungent wind passages, sometime making the instruments “buzz” in an unusual manner, and his style of musical construction is remarkably dynamic and dramatic in style. Pickard’s music is intense almost to the point of mania; his rhythms do not edge forward as much as they lunge forward, almost in a lumbering style, so impetuous is his drive towards the next phrase or the next development section.

This restless intensity is immediately evident in the opening of the Fifth Symphony. Perhaps Pickard had a bit of Beethoven’s “shaking his fist at fate” in mind as he wrote it, so defiant and aggressive is its forward pulse. Although written as a single entity, it is indeed divided into four contrasting sections. The end of the first relaxes somewhat to allow him to move seamlessly into the second, which begins more quietly but soon increases in intensity, this time primarily through the strings and timpani. Eventually the lower strings play sustained notes while the winds (clarinet predominantly) and brass (French horns) interrupt with serrated double-time figures, eventually backed again by the timps. Shouting strings then lead us into the third section, marked “Maestoso” but sounding far more restless than majestic in stature. Pickard does, however, relax the tension here, giving us quiet if unsettled flute-clarinet passages above soft but grumbling basses and celli. A forlorn bassoon is heard briefly, followed by equally forlorn-sounding timpani, until the movement suddenly erupts again in a riot of sound and color. This, in turn, leads us to the manic fourth section, simply titled “bar 510,” whereupon Pickard returns us to the lunging, thrusting world of the opening movement, albeit with changes in thematic material and pacing. We get a moment of relaxation for some high, fluttering flute and piccolo passages, which increase in intensity until the timpani is playing every beat in the bar. This is followed by serrated viola and cello figures, to which violins are eventually added, before the whole orchestra comes in a bit at a time to make comment. Broad phrases intoned by wind and brass mixtures reach a climax before receding in volume and intensity; then the pattern is repeated.

Sixteen Sunrises is a different animal. Here, although we recognize Pickard’s unique orchestral handprint, the music is somewhat lighter in feel. Pickard states in the liner notes that it was conceived as a balance to his dark-sounding tone poem Tenebrae; he wanted 16 Sunrises to be “filled with light.” Nonetheless, Pickard seems incapable of composing music without an edge to it, thus these “sunrises” explode on the listener’s ear like fireworks blowing up in the sky. There is light in the music, but the light becomes shards. As Pickard explains, the title “refers to the number of sunrises that can normally be observed during a 24-hour period from the International Space Station, as it orbits the earth approximately once every 90 minutes.” The tempo, as I inferred above, is rapid, the orchestration sufficiently brilliant, and the collusion of sunrises eventually become musically juxtaposed so that the ear becomes unable to count the number of them. Again, as Pickard writes, this is because of the suddenness of seeing sunrises from the Space Station, where the process takes just a few seconds rather than whole minutes. I was expecially intrigued by his use of various percussion, including chimes and gong, perhaps to indicate a sunrise clash.

The Concertante Variations is the lightest original piece here, and indeed the jolliest and most purely entertaining work I’ve yet heard from Pickard. The composer explains that it was created for the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts in 2011, and was “certainly and enjoyable work to write.” In this context Pickard’s normal orchestral angst is turned to a buoyant lightness, scored for a chamber orchestra and using much more space than in his normally denser musical style. One recognizes Pickard’s footprint in the flute-clarinet passages and interjections from the oboe and French horn, but everything is happier and the extended harmonies are no longer extended here. One must praise the wind soloists of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who play with great tonal beauty and elegance of line here.

The Toccata (after Monteverdi) starts with the same music that opened the composer’s opera L’Orfeo but later includes a bit of the 1610 Vespers. It’s a short, lightweight conclusion to this CD.

Highly recommended for the original works presented here. This is pretty fabulous stuff!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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