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John PICKARD (b.1963)
Chamber Music - Volume 2
String Quartet No.1 (1991) [38:02]
String Quartet No.5 (2012-13) [26:06]
Brodowski Quartet
rec. July 2013, St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London

The second volume of Toccata Classics’ series devoted to the chamber music of the English composer John Pickard presents the First and Fifth of his String Quartets. Pickard, born in 1963, completed his First Quartet in 1991, a work he’d begun to write when he was 27. It lasts a testing 38-minutes and is cast in a single-movement, though it’s clear that there are sectional elements at work throughout. Toccata has, sensibly in my view, given ten separate tracking points and whilst this might be considered over-generous by some, it does reflect the stations through which the music passes rather well. Certainly, strategically, Pickard’s use of two unison melody passages is important enough to warrant separate tracking. So, too, are the separate fugal passages and the movement from the climax to the coda. The last part of the work is, in any case, notable for an increasing vehemence and that’s well reflected in these points along the way.
Pickard’s Quartet is contrapuntally powerful and his harmonic palette wide. There is fluidity within the columnar points suggested by the tracking, and the lyrically charged prelude passage (track three) leads inexorably and with logical sense to the first fugal section; the second such passage is a study in contrasts. The second unison melody proves more remote and extended than the first, the Meditation section being introspective, even static, thinning to single pregnant string lines. The longest section is the Prestissimo, and it contains a considerable amount of variety - both rhythmic, and in terms of articulation, before the coda returns the musical argument to a kind of repose, evoking the opening theme.
This powerful, expansive but strongly thought-through quartet was the start of Pickard’s enchantment with the quartet medium. His Fifth followed in 2013, though it had been well over a decade since the Fourth appeared. The Fifth was premiered by the performers on this disc, the Brodowski Quartet. Here there are five very defined movements. The root of the work is conflict and the means at Pickard’s disposal, in a kind of dialectical examination, is oppositional writing. These fragmentary opposites manifest themselves early. The quartet is a microcosm of the kind of divergence of view that, in the composer’s words, ‘lead to serious inter-personal conflict’. The oppositional nature is clearly rooted in human action and reaction; thus the work is, to that extent, an acting out of human impulses, ones of entrenchment, rejection, irresolution, and the slow journey toward a kind of reconciliation. The most intensely rapt and beautiful music in the disc is contained in the slow movement of this quartet, marked ‘Desolato’, in which the increasingly sorrowful collective tries achingly to bridge a seemingly irreconcilable gap between the four instruments. The nervous pizzicati of the ensuing scherzo-like movement lead to a series of oratorical outbursts in the movement rightly called ‘Drammatico’ as the four struggle to re-establish unity. The finale is a study in resolve, and striving, and a gradual move toward the ultimate unison at the very end. This marks the quartet’s passage from fracture and individualism through hard-won concession toward a point that marks, one feels, not an end in itself, but the hope of a new beginning.
Pickard’s quartets are played with tremendous insight and rhythmic charge. The music’s many challenges are characterised with great insight. The composer’s presence at the recording sessions must have acted as in invaluable spur to further precision and understanding. The recording venue, St Paul’s Church in New Southgate, London, is also tremendous. Admirers of Pickard, and of the contemporary string quartet, should acquire this disc without delay.
Jonathan Woolf