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John PICKARD (b.1963)
Piano Trio (1990) [17.44]
Insomnia for violin and piano (1997) [12.34]
Chaconne for solo viola (1998) [10.01]
Valedictions for cello and piano (1999-2000) [9.25]
Sonata for violin and piano (2004) [18.57]
Snowbound for bass clarinet, cello and piano (2010) [9.19]
Rupert Marshall (violin), Sophie Harris (cello), Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet), Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. St George's Bristol, England, 9-10 January 2010
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0150 [78.35]

If John Pickard were a worthy 19th century musician and safely dead one could pontificate about the state of mind he was in to create such powerful and forceful music. As it is, Professor Pickard is alive and well and, certainly when I met him some years ago, a very level-headed and thoughtful musician. He did not come across as full of angst, anger and emotional intensity like the music on this CD. It has been opined by many that the music a composer writes is not necessarily a reflection of how he or she feels, just a product of a fertile artistic imagination. Just because we might react to Mozart in G minor as driven and emotional, that does not imply that was how he was feeling at the time or indeed at any time. Pickard is an important contemporary composer in the mould of Robert Simpson. He does not adopt radical methods, he just writes worthwhile music. It would be no surprise to me if one day he is properly recognised as one of the finest composers around and performed with much greater frequency. Meanwhile, why does the record catalogue not contain any of Pickard's three orchestral symphonies? Only the Gaia Symphony for brass band (reviewed here by Christopher Thomas) is available, and that CD is not easily obtained.
 
The chamber compositions on this disc, the first of a pair issued by Toccata Classics, are presented in chronological order, the Piano Trio from 1990 up to Snowbound from 2010. The playing is magnificent, leading me to ponder what a deep layer of talent there is on the musical scene. For example, and only an example, why pay top dollar to listen to Yo Yo Ma when Sophie Harris is on our own doorstep? Whatever these people get paid I suspect it isn't what they are worth. Likewise Michael Ponder, the producer-engineer of this Toccata issue, has achieved recording quality equal to, and maybe better than, most of the major companies: very present and dynamic with a nice space around the performers.
 
The Piano Trio opens trenchantly with a movement full of driving rhythms which relaxes only to regather its forces for the next assault. It is very exciting stuff and, as suggested above, superbly well played. The slow movement is atmospheric. The piano sounds a series of chords around which the two strings wind a sort of lament. The finale returns to more rhythmic activity at the same metronome marking as the first movement but it sounds faster. The activity fades away to a peaceful close; the only such moment. Insomnia for violin and piano is angst-ridden and nightmarish just as the title suggests. Insomnia is certainly not a passive state in Pickard's view. Things get gradually more disturbed: "the way that a sleepless night often finds the mind picking up a stray thought and worrying at it until it is inflated to massive dimensions", says the composer. The Chaconne for solo viola is an abstract piece and largely without virtuoso display, though it does sound tense and is undoubtedly absorbing for the listener. Valedictions for cello and piano is in two evocatively titled sections: '...of Weeping' and '...forbidding Mourning'. To me it sounded like Jewish music, i.e. a bit like Bloch, and certainly sounded sad. It turns out to be inspired by two poems of John Donne about parting and farewell. The Violin Sonata is the biggest piece on the CD and opens with an urgent and angry Shostakovichian Allegro. The wonderfully strong and accurate playing of Rupert Marshall-Luck is utilised to the full in this and the succeeding movement, marked presto possibile, which screws up the tension still more. This second movement stops suddenly making the following Adagio a superb dramatic contrast. But even here the slow progress of violin and piano is still at high intensity and there is relaxation only at the end of this big nine-minute movement. The sonata is a great piece that contains more than a hint of the Berg Violin Concerto, an influence acknowledged by the composer in his notes. Snowbound, for the unusual combination of bass-clarinet, cello and piano, is a black and threatening piece. Even when it moves into a more jazzy mode it still remains aggressive. Pickard really exploits the sonority of the bass clarinet and cello together and of course the bass register of the piano is well able to give support. The whole piece is a fascinating study in bass sonorities. Some strange fluttering sounds, (maybe clarinet keys?), end this evocative work.

Dave Billinge