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John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Binyon Songs (2010-12) [15.55]
The Phoenix (1992) [16.00]
The borders of sleep (2000-01) [28.39]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Eve Daniell (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. St George’s Bristol, 2017

Over the past five years I have contributed a number of enthusiastic reviews to this site of both recordings and live performances of the orchestral works of John Pickard, one of the most impressive composers currently working in the British Isles. His pieces often call for unusual forces – a whole raft of double-bass woodwinds in his Gesualdo meditation Tenebrae, a Gaia Symphony scored for brass band on the most expansive scale, and three sets of antiphonally disposed timpani in the recent Fifth Symphony – but never does one get the impression that these are being used simply for effect, since the music simply demands to be written that way. Here the composer restricts himself to the most basic elements of song – a single voice and piano – but there is again no doubt that the music was conceived with just that sound in mind, even when The burning of the leaves (track 5, the last of the Binyon songs) was first given public performance in a version with orchestral accompaniment (the belated première of the original piano version was seven days later!).

What is more surprising is that the composer has composed so little for this medium, since he proves to be a masterly writer for the voice. Indeed this disc comprises the totality of his songs for voice and piano, written over a period of twenty years. Pickard himself provides a superb booklet note for this issue (he is a great exponent of his own music, as I have experienced in his introductions to live performances over the years), and explains that he “did not come from a musical background where singing was particularly prominent” and that he has a fear of “spoiling a good poem by setting it to music.” He has no need to be so reticent, and his ability to transmute poetry into song is apparent throughout this disc. Indeed one wishes that he had risen to the challenge more often over the years, although one would hesitate to suggest that we could have done without any of the enthralling orchestral scores he has produced instead.

Laurence Binyon is best-known today for his lines “They shall grow not old” which form an integral part of Remembrance services throughout the world. The poems here display a deep sensibility, which is matched by Pickard with a series of trenchant settings, but the closing lines of the final song The burning of the leaves written during the Second World War plumb a more pessimistic tone: “Earth cares for her own ruins, nothing for ours. Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.” Pickard brings a sense of aching beauty to his setting of these words, matched by the emotionally charged singing of Roderick Williams and the plangent playing of Simon Lepper.

The Phoenix sets a free adaptation of an Anglo-Saxon text which was at one time attributed to the Northumbrian poet Cynewulf, but which it has been suggested may be even earlier; Pickard himself has selected the lyrics from a long poem of 677 lines. It is clearly a much earlier work than the Binyon settings, with a more iconoclastic approach to tonality which reaches out towards expressionism in places. At over a quarter of an hour in length, it is the longest individual setting here, a sort of canticle rather than a straightforward ‘song’. Eve Daniell copes well with a wide-ranging vocal line but seems to be rather stretched by the higher reaches of her tessitura; she is heard at her best in the more reflective lines such as “Then it is silent and falls to listening. The bird is mute.” The final setting of the word “Alleluia” brings however a display of coloratura technique and a stratospherically high conclusion which seems curiously out of place in its context.

The cycle of Edward Thomas settings The borders of sleep evokes immediate comparison with the songs of Gerald Finzi, whose earlier treatment of a poem such as Tall nettles is relatively familiar. It is intended as a high compliment to observe that Pickard’s setting fully matches that of Finzi, and evokes an even bleaker atmosphere with its skeletally pacing piano accompaniment. The following The trumpet with its opening words “Rise up” then brings a more resolute tone with inevitable vocal echoes of Britten’s War Requiem. Pickard’s setting of Rain has a quiet sense of loneliness which prepares the listener for the bleak treatment of the final three poems in the cycle, which include the setting of “The sorrow of true love” which was the last entry in Thomas’s diary on the day that he was killed by a shell blast. Before that, the treatment of No one cares less than I is that of violent protest, where Williams rises to the words with venomous declamation; but the final Lights out eventually brings reconciliation with its closing lines “that I may lose my way and myself.” Here Williams brings a raptly still sense of contemplation to the floated tones of his voice. This is an extremely beautiful cycle, which was originally performed by Jeremy Huw Williams (who commissioned the work) in Cardiff back in 2002, but which has not previously been recorded.

The booklet notes comprise, besides full biographies of all the performers, the informative and stimulating observations and autobiographical details from the composer already mentioned, as well as complete texts in English. The recorded sound too is excellent and atmospheric, and this CD should be snapped up by all those who have an interest in the evolution of English song in the post-Britten era. Roderick Williams has already recorded the Binyon Songs in their orchestral version for EM Records (part of a two-disc collection) that was enthusiastically acclaimed as a “major discovery” by John Quinn for this site in October 2016; but this new issue, coupling the settings more appropriately with other works by Pickard, is surely self-recommending.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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