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John PICKARD (b. 1963)
The Gardener of Aleppo (2016) for flute, viola and harp [11.08]
Daughters of Zion (2016) for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble [8.06]
Snowbound (2010) for bass clarinet, cello and piano [10.16]
Serenata concertata (1984) for flute and chamber ensemble [20.35]
Three Chicken Studies (2008) for solo oboe [4.26]
The Phagotus of Afranio (1992) for bassoon and piano [10.26]
Ghost-Train (2016) for chamber ensemble [12.40]
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Nash Ensemble/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2018, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
BIS BIS2461 SACD [79.22]

The welcome commitment of the Swedish BIS label to the music of the British composer John Pickard continues with this encyclopaedic survey of some of his chamber works written over the last thirty years, to supplement earlier releases featuring his symphonies and orchestral works, many of which I have welcomed in earlier reviews on this site. And the range of pieces on this very well-filled SACD is indeed impressive.

The first two pieces both take their inspiration from political events in the contemporary Middle East. The Gardener of Aleppo describes the tragic fate of the owner of a garden centre in that unfortunate city who attempted to defy the ravages of the Syrian civil war by his love of horticulture – indeed, echoing Voltaire, the cultivation of his own garden – and his consequent death. Daughters of Zion takes a longer historical perspective, setting a poem by Gavin D’Costa which laments the travails of Israel’s women over the generations from Bibilical times to the Holocaust and beyond. Both are clearly heartfelt testimonials to their subject, and perhaps more importantly both are also undoubtedly music of stature. The Gardener of Aleppo, scored for the Debussian combination of flute, harp and viola, transcends its pastoral atmosphere to become a real protest against the inhumanity of war and conflict without straining the bounds of scale. The more obviously histrionic vocal work (where the vocal line evokes the style of the blues in Tippett’s Third Symphony) similarly packs a solid emotional charge and the downbeat ending is most affecting. It is sung with passion by Susan Bickley (although one needs the text provided in the booklet) and the players of the Nash Ensemble respond with clear sympathy both to the music and to its genesis. It is not perhaps on the same level as the other songs by Pickard heard in a Toccata release in 2018, but then those recordings were something very special.

We are suddenly transported back thirty years with the performance of the composer’s first ever commissioned work, a sextet for flute (with additional player in the wings, here supplied by double tracking), clarinet and piano quartet, which has no extra-musical associations whatsoever. It is easy with the benefit of hindsight to discern elements in the music which anticipate the later development of the composer to such works as Tenebrae and the Gaia Symphony, although whether these signposts would have been so readily recognisable at the time might be doubted. Nonetheless the three movements have a sense of atmosphere which reflect Pickard’s then-recent studies with William Mathias, and have a pastoral charm that sometimes rises to greater heights. This delicate work is preceded by the much darker Snowbound written during the winter of 2010 when the composer was confined to his house by a snowfall, and its dark colouring for bass clarinet, cello and piano recalls the textures of his Tenebrae written the year earlier.

In his Tenebrae Pickard also explored the resonant capabilities of the subterranean double-bass clarinet, and this instrument surfaces from the depths again in his Ghost-Train, an entirely humorous survey of the fairground ride which he recalls with some sense of disillusionment and disappointment from his childhood experiences (his booklet notes with this issue are, as always with this writer, a model of approachability and good-natured self-deprecation). The music is basically a sort of dance of death, a series of variations on the Gregorian plainchant Dies irae which not only cuts loose from its origins in a manner that recalls Rachmaninov in his Paganini Rhapsody but then reaches out to the witches’ sabbath from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Its perpetuum mobile conclusion certainly brought a smile to my face. So too did the three brief portrayals of the composer’s chickens enshrined in the Three Chicken Studies for the solo oboe of Gareth Hulse. I had never thought of chickens as birds of great capacity either mentally or emotionally; but Pickard obviously regards them with affection. And in Laying, the longest of the three movements even though less than two minutes in duration, he succeeds in casting their activities in a slightly wistful light.

But to my mind the real masterpiece on this enterprising compilation is the absolutely uproarious Phagotus of Afranio. The peculiar title certainly merits explanation. In his 1914 textbook on orchestration, Cecil Forsyth – with his often quirky and not always infallible sense of judgement – indulged himself with some fairly trenchant observations on the failings of medieval and renaissance instruments that certainly would find no endorsement from the modern period-instrument movement. He reserves particular scorn for an instrument invented by the early renaissance Italian Afranio degli Albonesi, which had been identified by earlier writers as a fore-runner of the modern bassoon (Italian “fagotto”). By quoting extensively from a paper on cabbalistic studies written by the inventor’s nephew (the possessor of the imposing pseudo-classical name Theseus Ambrosius Albonesius), he demonstrates not only that the phagotus had nothing whatever to do with the later instrument, but that it was a sort of Heath-Robinson construction whose theoretical existence was almost certainly never intended for practical use. Pickard extensively quotes one of the more hilarious passages from Forsyth’s book in his notes, but I cannot refrain from adding a further citation of my own:

“But before he could [begin to play] he had to turn on the air-stream in the instrument itself…Until this key was brought into action the air-stream could not enter the resonating chamber. Theseus Ambrosius Albonesius takes immense delight in drawing attention to this subtlety. Apparently its only object was to prevent an ignorant person from playing the instrument. This precaution seems unnecessary. Even a mediaeval Italian would scarcely have had the necessary mixture of cunning and hardihood to make the attempt.”

They just don’t write textbooks like that anymore; the combination of scholastic earnestness and ridicule is inimitable.

And that sort of weird and wonderful concoction is exactly what Pickard delivers here, in a ten-minute riot of sounds for bassoon and piano which firstly has difficulty getting started, then breaks down in a welter of multiphonic chords, and finally engages in a dispute between the two players as to exactly what note the piece should conclude on. The fact that this fractious conclusion brings echoes of Reizenstein’s Concerto popolare written for Gerard Hoffnung’s concerts in the 1950s does not detract from the result, which is indeed hilarious in the extreme and would surely make any audience laugh out loud. The result is an apotheosis of the bassoon in its role as “the clown of the orchestra” and should be in the repertory of every player of the instrument as a work that would engage audiences worldwide. The piece alone is worth the cost of this disc, especially in the capable hands of Ursula Leveaux and Ian Brown.

And, as I trust I have made clear, there are other gems to be found here. Pickard’s recent Fifth Symphony (which I reviewed when it received its première in Cardiff in 2016) clearly demonstrates a composer whose style is continuing to develop; but this collection clearly shows how far he has already come in the last thirty years. The performances are uniformly excellent and the recording – as one would expect from this label – is superlatively fine and realistic. BIS have a praiseworthy policy of providing good long pauses between individual items on their discs. Here, given the sometimes abrupt and inconclusive endings of some of the works, they might perhaps have been slightly longer to advantage; but then the disc is already packed to near capacity. And the packaging, in BIS’s usual eco-friendly gatefold sleeve, adds icing to an already rich cake.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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