PICKARD: The Gardener of Aleppo for Flute, Viola & Harp. Daughters of Zion for Mezzo & Chamber Ensemble.1,3 Snowbound for Bass Clarinet, Cello & Piano. Serenata Concertata for Flute & Chamber Ensemble.2,3 3 Chicken Studies for Oboe. The Phagotus of Afranio for Bassoon & Piano. Ghost-Train for Chamber Ensemble3 / 1Susan Bickley, mezzo; 2Philippa Davies, fl; Nash Ensemble; 3Martyn Brabbins, cond / Bis SACD-2461
Just as Augusta Read Thomas is an American composer whose work appears on a British label, John Pickard is a British composer whose work appears on the Swedish label Bis. Part of the new world order of things! I’ve been very impressed with most of Pickard’s music in the past, but previously have only heard orchestral works. This is a full CD of his chamber music.
As quoted in the booklet, Pickard likes to challenge himself when asked to write a piece for an unusual combination of instruments: “I like this unpredictable aspect of creativity and I enjoy challenging and surprising myself.” The opening work, The Gardener of Aleppo, inspired by the Syrian civil war and Abu al-Ward, who for five years “ran the last remaining garden-centre in the ruins of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo, selling plants to residents.” As is usual with Pickard’s music, it scurries atop a bitonal harmonic base. Since the flute cannot play chords and the viola only does so on occasion, it is in the harp writing that Pickard has placed most of the really challenging harmonic dissonance, using that instrument in a more aggressive manner than it is normally heard. At around the 7:50 mark, Pickard does indeed call upon the viola to play chords as well, but that instrument is still used in a lyrical fashion while the harp continues to play more percussively than usual.
In Daughters of Zion, based on a study of Iberia’s early-mediaeval Christian liturgy which included “the anti-Jewish aspect of the Marian feast,” Pickard uses a mezzo-soprano and the full 12-piece Nash Ensemble, one of Great Britain’s finest musical groups of the past 35 years. The singer is Susan Bickley, one of my favorite British mezzo-sopranos, and here Pickard’s writing is closer in texture and use of harmonic-melodic-rhythmic material to his orchestral works. Much emphasis is again given to percussive elements, particularly the piano and xylophone, while the string quartet within the ensemble plays edgy open chords and the winds are pitched in their higher range to produce a more piercing sound. The text was written by Gavin D’Costa, Professor of Catholic Theology (a religion well acquainted with anti-Semitism, having practiced it for centuries) at the University of Bristol. The lines sung by the mezzo are essentially tonal and melodic: set to very different chords, it could easily pass for a work by such late-Romantic British composers as Vaughan Williams or Ethel Smyth. Around the 6:10 mark, clarinet and string bass play another fairly melodic line in unison, though spaced several octaves apart.
Although Snowbound only uses three instruments—bass clarinet, cello and piano—Pickard has found some new and novel ways to combine them. The piece opens with the piano playing a crashing, rumbling bitonal chord in its depths, followed by the bass clarinet and cello playing ominous, unusual lines around it. This fairly simple material is then expanded upon in a way that almost, but not quite, turns the music lyrical, though the minor-key tendencies of the harmony keep it from sounding any bit cheerful. Eventually, a rhythmic motif appears, the tempo increases and the bass clarinet becomes involved in serrated figures as the cello and piano then begin to play their own jittery motifs. This then leads to an extremely rapid, busy section filled with eighth-note flurries which lead back to slow, mysterious music once again.
The Serenata Concertata is a more lyrical and less edgy piece, but less edgy doesn’t mean that it is entirely smooth and even. The opening is particularly interesting as it includes an extended passage in which the solo flute is accompanied only by pizzicato bass, as in a jazz ensemble, though the rhythms are distinctly classical. The occasional crashing of low piano chords interrupts this idyllic dialogue and eventually chases the bass away. Eventually, things loosen up, other instruments in the ensemble come in, the violin plays a soaring, quasi-Romantic line and the serenata really takes shape. This is the second movement, titled “Aria.” In the next movement, “Scherzo-Notturno,” Pickard turns the heat up a notch, increasing the tempo and having the piano play soft, menacing, single-note runs in the bass line that launch a fairly eerie nocturnal musical scenario. The pizzicato bass alto returns in this section, and again it underpins the flute. A strange serenata indeed! Eventually, things quiet down for the second “Cadenza” section before ending with a second “Aria” that is not quite as memorably melodic as the first.
3 Chicken Studies was written as a gift for Margaret Pierson, an oboe-playing friend of his. Apparently, Pickard has kept chickens as pets for many years and is fascinated “by their complex social interactions.” My neighbor also keeps chickens, which come onto my front and back yards as often as they see fit to do, and I have yet to notice any complex social interactions. They are annoying pests who shit all over my yard and back porch, and I am forever throwing cups and buckets of water at them to chase them away. About the most complex social interaction I have noticed is that, when I throw the water at them, the Queen Hen of the Day starts clucking at the rooster, “Come, Throckmorton, it’s obvious we’re not wanted here!” as they haughtily move away—not nearly as quickly as I would like them to do. (My cat Midnight, who I would have thought would chase them because a) they’re birds and b) birds are food, apparently considers them playmates, so she follows them down the walk with a big smile on her face. “See? I’m following the chickens!”) Thus I cannot really understand or sympathize with Pickard’s view towards these idiotic egg-layers except as a food source, but the music is whimsical and pleasant.
The Phagotus of Afranio, for bassoon and piano, is a whimsical piece inspired by a written piece of whimsy, Cecil Forsyth’s description of an unfortunate early instrument once mistakenly believed to be the bassoon’s predecessor. The Phagotus was invented by an Italian kook in the early 16th century, “a remarkable monstrosity, part bagpipes and part chamber organ, comprising several hollow tubes equipped with strategically placed finger holes and connected to a complex arrangement of bellows, one under each armpit.” Pickard used this bizarre description as the inspiration for a dryly witty piece exploring the bassoon’s lower register in particular. There’s a bit of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice feel to the piece, though the humor is not nearly as overt.
We end our sojourn with Ghost-Train for chamber ensemble, written in 2016 for the French contemporary musical group Ensemble Variance. It is in a musical style quite different for Pickard, a perpetuum mobile driven by staccato bass notes on the piano in a manner resembling early jazz or ragtime, with the flute and clarinet playing high, driving figures, alternating with strings at times. The clarinetist in this work is called on to play four different instruments: a regular clarinet in Bb, an Eb clarinet, bass an contrabass clarinet (which rather sounds like Fafner the dragon digesting a nice meal). Towards the end, he tosses in the Dies irae theme as a “ground bass” by the contrabass clarinet beneath the screaming flute, yet it ends quietly with the “ghost train” disappearing in a puff of air through the flute without producing a note. This is yet another whimsical piece showing not only Pickard’s sense of humor but also his diversity of composition styles. Unlike so many young composers nowadays, he refuses to be locked into any one composing style, which is another reason I like his music so much.
A wonderful album, then, not only interesting but entertaining to listen to.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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