RECORDING OF THE MONTH
John PICKARD (b.1963)
Symphony No. 4 Gaia Symphony (1991-2003) [65.15]
Eden (2005) [15.11]
Eikanger-Bjorsvik Musikklag/Andreas Hanson
rec. Eidsvag Church, Bergen, June 2013.
BIS BIS-2061 SACD [81.09]
I am delighted to see that BIS are continuing to promote the music of John Pickard. Last year I gave a warm welcome to a CD including his Tenebrae (review review), which I also nominated as one of my CDs of the year. I was also delighted to meet the composer for a conversation the year before following the UK première of Tenebrae in Cardiff; Pickard has a long connection with Wales which goes back to his study with William Mathias at Bangor, although he now lives across the water in Bristol. The composer contributes an intelligent and discursive seven-page booklet note which is lucid — not always a forte with composers — and provoking by turns, and to which I shall turn at several points in the course of this review.
This disc contains his two major works written for brass band. The Gaia Symphony was indeed composed for the Cory Band from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales during the period when Pickard was their composer-in-residence. The four movements which comprise the symphony were originally written and performed separately. However, the composer at an early stage recognised that there were kinships between the various sections which justified the title of symphony although he had “fairly strong views about what a symphony should be.” These reservations are unnecessary. The whole work centres around the ‘Gaia’ theory of British scientist James Lovelock “which proposes the earth itself to be a living self-regulating organism”. Pickard goes on to describe the theory “if I understand it correctly” and it is clear that it has inspired him profoundly, even though he draws a pessimistic conclusion from it: “From an artistic point of view, I find the cyclic nature of this idea to be strongly compelling – even if it does imply a limited future for my own and any other artist’s conclusions.” As a composer myself as well as a writer on music, I hope he is wrong – for his own sake as well as my own. Those looking for a more optimistic view should read Isaac Asimov’s treatment of the theory in his sequel novels to his Foundation trilogy, which most unfortunately was left incomplete at the author’s death.
Pickard, wishing to write the symphony as a continuous linked work, was concerned that the “continuous unrelieved sound of the brass band might well become tedious over the course of an hour” and also that “no band in the world could possibly have the stamina to sustain a continuous piece of such unparalleled length.” Accordingly he has furnished three ‘windows’ for an expanded percussion section (six players) which act as links between the four main movements. They do indeed serve the two purposes for which they were designed, and blend well into the structure of the work as a whole.
The opening Tsunami begins slowly but rapidly develops into a whirlwind of a piece depicting the destructive power of nature. Wildfire is a similarly fast and furious scherzo. After this Aurora is a particularly beautiful slow movement, an intensely atmospheric piece. Oddly enough Asimov employs the name 'Aurora' for one of his other planets in his exploration of the Gaia theory. The same sense of landscape impressions extends into the lengthy finale Men of stone, a suite of four connected movements each depicting a Neolithic monument at a different season and time of day. The depiction of morning at Avebury, serene and calm, seems to quote from Britten’s Dawn interlude in Peter Grimes with its little arpeggiated flecks from the cornets. I am not sure if this is deliberate, but it is certainly effective. Otherwise the music, with its parallels with Mahler’s Third Symphony in its description of a whole universe of nature and mankind, is in the mainstream of the European classical tradition. There are none of the superficial and artificial ‘effects’ that afflict so much music which is being produced nowadays. The Gaia Symphony is an attempt to engage with modern environmental concerns without falling into the trap of ‘new age’ simplicity. It succeeds triumphantly.
Eden was written a couple of years after the symphony, and was designed as a test piece for the National Brass Band Championships in London’s Royal Albert Hall. It is also a programmatic work, taking its inspiration from Milton’s tale of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost as well as the Eden Project in Cornwall which Pickard regards as “a small ray of hope for the future.” He also voices complaints about “some contemporary composers (especially those who work exclusively in the brass band world) … producing music that is more concerned with producing superficial effects than with pursuing the core values of intelligent construction and musical integrity.” I can only agree, with the additional comment that Pickard can most certainly not be accused of making such sacrifices here. The tripartite structure of the piece is clearly demonstrated, and the music – which begins the disc – immediately draws the listener in with its clearly delineated tonal basis. The central section is furious scherzo-like music depicting industrial despoliation of the landscape. The finale is an “intense lament” which only gradually achieves a hard-won sense of optimism at the end.
Since the Gaia Symphony was written with the Cory Band in mind, I might shed a tear that they do not perform the work on this CD - although they have recorded Wildfire and Men of stone separately. No one could complain about the performance of the Norwegian players here, who produce a stunningly virtuosic and heartfelt vision of the work. There has been a previous recording by a local South Wales group, which was issued on Doyen in 2005 and was enthusiastically reviewed for this site by Christopher Thomas (which I have not heard). That disc contained only the symphony. BIS have put us in their debt by the production of a CD which is so well filled – I think it is the longest use of the medium I have ever encountered – and so superbly engineered and presented.
This will certainly be another nomination for my ‘disc of the year’ come December. In the meantime anybody who is interested in the development of music in the twenty-first century should rush out and buy this CD at once. It is to be hoped that this will encourage BIS to explore the music of Pickard further, with recordings of his other four symphonies.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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