BIS have shown commendable enterprise in supporting contemporary composers, among them Lancashire-born John Pickard. Rob Barnett welcomed The Flight of Icarus
) and Paul Corfield Godfrey hailed Tenebrae
as ‘a work of towering genius’ (review
). The conductor in those two recordings is the indefatigable Martyn Brabbins, who also gave the premiere of Tenebrae
in Cardiff last year (review
). All of which has whetted my appetite for Eden
and the Fourth Symphony
, subtitled Gaia
. The Norwegian brass band Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag are new to me, but then that’s the pleasure of such ‘innocent ear’ reviews.
In preparation I listened to The Flight of Icarus
away deeply impressed by the energy and vision of the piece. There’s
nothing anodyne or clichéd about Pickard’s take on the
triumphs and adversities of manned flight; endlessly inventive and pleasingly
is a good launch pad from which to explore
this composer’s oeuvre; it helps, too, that the Norrköping
orchestra play with such brio and bite. That’s not to say it’s
all high energy, for the more reflective passages drive home the message
of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts
, that hubris has
its price. Indeed, those sentiments are echoed in Eden
Even more overwhelming is the apocalyptic mind- and soundscape of Channel
, based on Thomas Hardy’s poem of the same name. It
has some of the austere beauty of Britten’s War Requiem
- ‘passing bells’ included - not to mention an unbreakable,
elegiac thread that binds it all together. As contemporary music goes
this has everything; invention, involvement and an innate strength that’s
all too rare in such works. It’s certainly a piece that invites
repeated listening, despite its thudding recoils and epic plosions;
also, the BIS recording has awesome range without seeming relentless
or ragged. All of which augurs well for this new recording.
I make no apologies for spending time on this earlier release, whose
cautionary nature now finds expression in the eco-issues of Eden
and the Gaia Symphony
. Some listeners may roll their eyes and
move on, but I’d urge them to tarry awhile. Yes, such programmes
are often flimsy pegs from which to hang otherwise unremarkable musings,
but I can assure you this isn’t one of them … and no, there’s
no volume cranking required either, for Take5 Productions –
have excelled themselves with this one.
The quietly evocative start to the single-movement Eden
, written for what the composer calls a ‘standard British brass band’, will certainly strike a chord with lovers of the genre. Apart from the clarity and range of Pickard’s writing I could scarcely believe the virtuosity and blend of this largely amateur ensemble. Now trenchant, now wistful this is a fabulous score that proceeds with tremendous thrust and assurance to a thrilling close. Commissioned as a test piece Eden
is both a technical tour de force
and a sonic one; I seriously doubt you’ll hear a better performance of it than this.
As for the multi-part Gaia Symphony
is nothing if not ambitious;
twelve years in the writing it requires the augmented band to play continuously
for more than an hour. Pickard’s method – and ‘message’
- are succinctly dealt with in his unpretentious liner-notes, so I’ll
just concentrate on the performance itself. Starting with Tsunami
we are swept up in a horizon-stretching flood of sound that has both
heft and rhythmic verve. This visceral movement brings to mind the likes
of Leonard Bernstein and Malcolm Arnold at their most unbuttoned; it’s
certainly no Sunday afternoon on the bandstand for these doughty players.
Conductor Andreas Hanson proves a firm anchor against this killer tide.
Audiophiles will be delighted with the heft of this fine recording –
just sample the percussive flares and flurries of Window 1 Water
- although it’s not all about size and spectacle.
And thank goodness for that, as 65 minutes of full-on music-making would
soon take its toll on one’s ears and exhaust the patience of one’s
neighbours. The glissandi
, lick and crackle of Wildfire
underline the sheer dexterity of both the writing and the playing; it
really is hard to believe these are mainly amateurs, such is their security
of tone and unanimity of attack.
The more delicate chimes, chirrups and susurrations of Window 2
Fire - Air
are superbly realised as well, recalling the sounds
of BIS’s sense-stroking Kroumata percussion SACDs. Even Aurora
where one might expect celestial clichés, is both louring and
luminous; and what a very believable and atmospheric spread of sound,
too. The final section, Men of Stone
, combines prehistoric
broodings with the changing seasons and times of day. It almost feels
like a standalone piece, such are its unique colours and structural
coherence. Happily, rhythms are flexible and it's all so danceable too.
So, if you’ve ever been tempted to try the music of John Pickard
this is your chance. With downloads you can purchase a track or two
as a taster, but in this case I’d say be bold and buy ’em
Brass band music as you’ve never heard it before; ardent, atavistic, awesome.