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John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Eden (2005) [15:11]
Symphony No. 4 (Gaia Symphony) (1991-2003) [65:15]
Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag/Andreas Hanson
rec. June 2013, Eidsvåg Church, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
BIS BIS-2061 SACD [81:09]

BIS have shown commendable enterprise in supporting contemporary composers, among them Lancashire-born John Pickard. Rob Barnett welcomed The Flight of Icarus (review) 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 and came 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 propulsive Icarus 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 and Gaia too.
Even more overwhelming is the apocalyptic mind- and soundscape of Channel Firing, 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 - Fire - 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 all.
Brass band music as you’ve never heard it before; ardent, atavistic, awesome.
Dan Morgan