John PICKARD (b.1963)
Piano Concerto (1999-2000) [30:58]
Sea-Change (1988-89) [17:11]
Tenebrae, for orchestra (2008-09) [24:33]
Frederik Ullén (piano)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. Louis De Geer Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, March 2010; December 2011 (Concerto). DDD
BIS-CD-1873 [74:02]
This is a terrifically exciting follow-up to a disc released by BIS in 2008, recorded at the same venue and with the same orchestra-conductor team as here (CD-1578, review). Two of the works on that well-received album, The Flight of Icarus and Channel Firing, were even of the same 1990s vintage. In fact, there is a good reason for that: as Pickard reveals in the notes: they form a sea-themed trilogy with Sea-Change. That being so, it is rather surprising that BIS did not record and present the three together, coupling the Trombone Concerto (The Spindle of Necessity) from that album instead with the Piano Concerto and Tenebrae.
Nevertheless, the three works that have been brought together make for a programme that is full of energy and colour. Sea-Change is the most accessible, having been written for a student orchestra. The title refers to the tide-like currents that are layered into the score. The insistent cross-rhythms running throughout the work lead to an electrifying final few minutes that sound like a blend of Ravel's Boléro, Shostakovich's 'invasion march' from the Leningrad Symphony and the notorious snare drum attack in the first movement of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony.
Written a decade later, the Piano Concerto is decidedly more ambitious and virtuosic in scope, yet with its occasional jazz rhythms and graphic, essentially tonal idiom, the work could - and should - take its place in any concert programme of twentieth-century music. The slow, swirling, reflective central section prevaricates perhaps slightly too long, but Pickard's amazing ability to say things in new ways, without ever resorting to gimmickry, concertinas any longueurs, and the half-hour whizzes by. Frederik Ullén is excellent, but so too are the orchestra. The Norrköping Symphony and Martyn Brabbins may not sound like a guaranteed-knockout team, but here, as on the earlier Pickard disc, they have the technique, the muscle and the insight to make this a recording to cherish, especially with BIS's fine audio, which has plenty of width, depth and internal detail.
Much the most recent work from either BIS disc is Tenebrae, which gives the present album its title. Tenebrae is 25 minutes of deep orchestral tessitura punctuated by tumultuous crescendos that probably place it outside the comfort zone of those with more traditional musical tastes. The work received its UK premiere earlier this year in fact, with Brabbins conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Some listeners may have been lucky enough to hear that performance a few days later on BBC Radio 3. As the title suggests, Tenebrae is a twilit work and it is here that Pickard's affinity with Scandinavian orchestral music is most obvious. Tenebrae goes back to Sibelius, but it is Kalevi Aho, Sibelius's symphonic heir, who is most frequently brought to mind. Like much of Aho's orchestral corpus, Tenebrae is a loury, visceral masterpiece.
The booklet has notes by Pickard himself, detailed and well written, the occasional statement of the obvious aside: "the orchestra - who work together very much as a team throughout." Translations into German and French are supplied as usual. One real curiosity here: the small print ascribes copyright of the innocent-looking front cover text to Pickard. Have composers hit upon an ingenious way to actually earn some money from recordings?
Elsewhere, some of Pickard's equally excellent chamber music has recently become available on monographs from Toccata Classics (TOCC 0150) and Dutton (CDLX 7117, review), as well as a brass band behemoth on Doyen (DOY CD188, review).
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A programme full of energy and colour.

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