Pickard’s Fascinating Songs Presented in New CD

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PICKARD: Binyon Songs. The Phoenix.* The Borders of Sleep / Roderick Williams, bar; *Eve Daniell, sop; Simon Lepper, pn / Toccata Classics 0413

John Pickard, whose powerful, edgy orchestral works are among the best being written nowadays, emerges here in an entirely different style. Granted, these are songs and singers have range and technical limitations that instruments do not, but Pickard has almost completely abandoned his modernistic, bitonal and occasionally atonal style to produce some very lovely music in a modern vein. Granted, occasional pieces like “The Burning of the Leaves” in the Binyon Songs move towards bitonal harmony in the piano accompaniment, but by and large Pickard has chosen to take an almost Ralph Vaughan Williams approach to song writing: good, well-constructed music but largely lyrical and tonal.

But I hope I have made clear that “largely lyrical and tonal” does not mean uninteresting. I think Pickard is constitutionally incapable of writing poorly constructed or formulaic music, and these songs—any one of which would serve a singer well in a vocal recital—are consistently fine as well as emotionally powerful statements. Of course, it helps that they are presented here not only by Roderick Williams, a British baritone with an incipient flutter in the voice but a really lovely tone, great interpretive skills and crystal-clear diction (thank God for once!), but also the really outstanding pianist Simon Lepper. This duo clearly worked hard and long on honing every phrase of each song to communicative perfection. They surely did not intend this to just be a “read-through” of these obviously superior examples of modern British song writing. Indeed, the aforementioned “Burning of the Leaves” is almost a vocal tone poem in and of itself, magnificent and compelling from start to finish.

Unfortunately, the longest song on this album, The Phoenix, is given not to Williams but to soprano Eve Daniell, and she has a horrid voice. Wobbly, pinched, nasal and nasty-sounding, I can’t imagine that someone with a voice like this would get professional engagements, but there you are. The music is superb, however, and with an artist of the quality of Tony Arnold to sing this it would be a moving and fascinating piece. Fortunately, Lepper is still the pianist here, and he carries off his part of the performance beautifully.

Having suffered through 16 minutes of Daniell’s caterwauling, Williams’ warm voice in the ten-piece cycle The Borders of Sleep was like a balm on the ears. Nor is this just a metaphor, for Pickard’s music here is among his loveliest and most accessible. In the first song, “Tall Nettles,” Williams ends on an perfectly-floated high G, and in the second, the somewhat edgier “The Trumpet,” he articulates the musical line with perfect rhythmic acuity and a fine declamatory style, never pressuring the voice too much. Bravo, Roderick! The third song, “The Mill-Water,” lay somewhere between the two stylistically. This cycle was based on the poetry of Edward Thomas who, like Wilfred Owen of War Requiem fame, was killed in the first World War, though his poetry is less directly connected to the international conflict. Interestingly, Pickard wrote the songs in a completely different order from how they appear on the CD. As he put it in the notes,

As I worked on the songs, a sort of imaginary narrative began to emerge: a soldier at the Western Front lies in his bunk, half-awake (at ‘the borders of sleep’, as the last poem says) the night before going over the top into no man’s land. Recollections of the natural world from back home (he is a country man) and of lost love merge with images of war. The memories darken, culminating in the macabre vision of the central song, ‘The Gallows.’

In “The Gallows,” Pickard alternates between strophic phrases, punctuated by somewhat detached chords from the piano, and lyrical ones in which the keyboard plays a more consistent and insistent rhythm. The vocal line often hovers between major and minor, sometimes encompassing notes that could fit either/or. This gave him a good amount of leeway in focusing on the connection between text and music. For the most part he did an admirable job, and the song’s atmosphere carries over to the rest of the cycle. Most certainly it carries over to the next song, “Rain,” in which the poet muses “nothing but the wild rain on this bleak hut, and solitude, and me remembering again that I shall die and neither hear the rain nor give it thanks for washing me cleaner than I have been.” Pickard captures perfectly the surreal mood of the words in his music, giving the pianist soft, blurred figures to play behind the singer. Contrast this with “No One Cares Less Than I,” with its driving energy and edgy, bitonal harmonies, and one can see that this poetry got a good grip on the composer as he wrote the music.

Needless to say, “Last Poem” and “Lights Out” take us to a quieter space, and there is a certain Britten-esque quality about these songs without copying the great composer that I liked very much. Williams remains consistently excellent to the very end, which ends on a soft, a cappella phrase. Overall, then, a decidedly worthwhile disc to acquire. Just set your CD player to skip over band six and you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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