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CD Review

John Pickard

Toccata 413

Songs for Voice & Piano

  • Binyon Songs 2
  • The Phoenix 1
  • The Borders of Sleep 2
1 Eve Daniell, soprano
2 Roderick Williams, baritone
Simon Lepper, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0413

John Pickard (born in 1963) is one of those composers with a distinct and very effective style who does not yet get the attention which he deserves. In fact he has more than 60 works to his credit, as well as several transcriptions and reconstructions of works by others. He writes in many genres and is best known for his striking orchestral works, including five splendid symphonies. Toccata has recently released what amounts to a survey of his complete output for voice and piano. For all their small scale, they exemplify the range and impact of Pickard's writing.

Pickard studied music and composition both with Welsh composer William Mathias at the University of Wales, and with Louis Andriessen in The Netherlands. Since 1993 he has been Professor of Composition and Applied Musicology at the University of Bristol, where he was Head of Music for four years (2009-13) and is now conductor of the University of Bristol Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society. Composing very much in the English tradition (Pickard was General Editor of the Elgar Complete Edition from 2004 to 2017), his music is characterized by a restrained but always justified declamatory force refreshed and strengthened by an equally rational yet wholesome intimacy.

The first work on this CD, the five Binyon Songs, sets texts from the now eclipsed poet of the First World War, Laurence Binyon (1869 - 1943), "For the Fallen". Pickard had originally intended to set only "The Burning of the Leaves" [tr.5], which – like three of the others in the set – is (ostensibly) about Nature ("When all the world is hidden" [tr.4] is a love song). In fact Binyon fills his words with allusions and references to ways in which Nature reflects human decay in particular; and vice versa. For reasons relating to the performance history of the work, Pickard later extended his project to include this wider selection from Binyon's collection. It's a gently compelling work excellently and sensitively performed here. Like the other works, this is its only available recording.

There is a similar broad range in the second set emanating from the First World War, The Borders of Sleep, to texts by Edward Thomas, who was born in 1878 and killed in 1917 in that conflict. Containing some of his most celebrated poems ("Tall Nettles" and "Lights Out", which begins "I have come to the borders of sleep"), Pickard's highly atmospheric melodies and harmonies do full justice to the regret and unself-indulgent pining of Thomas words. Pauses, suspensions, quizzicality, and (short) passages for voice alone, piano alone (as in "The Gallows" [tr.11], for instance) make their impact in fresh and even unexpected ways.

Although it's tempting – given the texts – to think of Finzi, Gurney and Britten and conclude that Pickard is taking up where they left off, that would be a mistake. Yes, he is in that tradition – inevitably. But his voice and sound world are gently innovative in ways completely consistent with twenty-first century sensibilities as long as one does not look for show, spectacle or novelty for their own sakes. And – importantly – Williams, Lepper (and Daniell) understand the importance of the need for the uncluttered assumption that voice and piano can (and should?) combine to convey nothing more, nothing less than what is contained in the text and melodies. In other words, perhaps, the listener needs to take Pickard at his word when he elaborates on the relationship between language, text – and the world to which they refer on the one hand; and the facility which music possesses to break new ground when it endorses text on the other.

He is interested in the way in which both Binyon and Thomas seem to refer obliquely to war; there is a notable lack of metaphor. At times, though, the words do paint actual events around the poets, as in "Rain" [tr.12], for example. Pickard exploits the gap left by such an "offset" between the language of poetry which we know to be referring to horrors, poignancy and negativity, and those events and attributes themselves. It takes a special performing sensitivity to understand and respond to this. Williams and Lepper, by taking their time and really reflecting on what Pickard has written, offer such sensitivity.

Typical of the composer, these songs have a directness which should evoke a satisfied response from listeners who understand Pickard's idiom, and Binyon's. And who appreciate that their intellectual honesty and integrity should be seen as originating in what Pickard calls (in his excellent and informative essay for the booklet that comes with the CD) a "… measured, civilised voice largely drowned out in the clamour of the late twentieth and early 21st centuries". This is not to suggest at all that Pickard writes with a nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; nor that his style is backward or conservative. One thinks of Britten at times with his own styles of elegance and frankness. As in The Borders of Sleep Roderick Williams clear baritone voice effortlessly employs an intonation and articulation which convey every nuance of melody, text and texture.

That same essay explains in no uncertain terms how difficult Pickard finds it to identify and be happy with texts… he fears "spoiling a good poem". Conversely he avoids being thrown by even a single "musically problematical" word in a poem. You would not, though, know this from what has been recorded on this CD. The writing – like the singing and playing – is fluid, precise and falls on the ear with a certain inevitability about it.

The text of The Phoenix is freely adapted from editor R.K.Gordon's translation of the poem of that name from the ninth century in the Exeter Book. It's the longest single work on the CD with soprano Eve Daniell. She too is expressive and clear. She brings a sense of apparently guileless wonder to the setting which characterizes so much Anglo-Saxon poetry ("I have heard far off in the east…"). She avoids spurious rhetoric without either inflating or losing the impact of the mystery of the famed bird. There are maybe a few moments when Daniell allows just a little too much vibrato and technique more familiar in opera to draw attention to her voice and not to the song. It's a piece which emphasizes lyricism and ecstasy, optimism and immediacy. The soprano at times infuses the performance with her own energy when the music has enough of its own.

Simon Lepper's pianism is excellent throughout. His sensitivity not to the singer, nor to the text, but to the ways in which the two interrelate is what counts. This awareness does such strong service to these precisely-conceived and meticulously-prepared performances. Virtuosity is not lacking in Pickard's writing on this scale. But it's never gratuitous. Lepper understands the dangers of the former and the extent to which his color and tone can aid our enjoyment and appreciation of the songs without suspecting impetuosity or a hint of waywardness. This is completely in line with Pickard's insistence that his music be received without irony, subterfuge and with complete sincerity.

The CD was recorded in St George's, Bristol, whose acoustic has just the right amount of resonance to support the weight of these three settings. As said, the booklet aids in helping the listener to appreciate Pickard's world and approach. It has his own commentary on how and why these works came to be written. He also nicely sums up his varied use of tonality: a knowable and discernible pitch-center is rarely absent, though when the text demands that it be unsettled or treated ambivalently, the composer does not stint from doing so. This may well be the most striking aspect of Pickard's music for those new to it. You are not immediately sure of your musical environment. Not that Pickard aims deliberately to disorient. Rather that the writing follows musical directions, not those of dogma or (predetermined) style. If you're new to Pickard, this is a good place to start because the works here distill the essence of Pickard's philosophy and considerable skills. If you're already a "follower", you will want such largely excellent accounts of an area of writing to which, let's hope, Pickard will turn his attention again soon.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey