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Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo - Brabbins

Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo - Brabbins

BIS  BIS-2461

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo (2016), Daughters of Zion (2016), Snowbound (2010), Serenata Concertata (1984), Three Chicken Studies (2008), The Phagotus of Afranio (1992), Ghost-Train (2016)

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins, conductor


Four previous releases on BIS have all featured John Pickard’s music for large orchestra – or, in the case of the Gaia Symphony (BIS-2061), large brass band. This new disc, on the other hand, presents scorings ranging from a solo oboe to a chamber ensemble of eight players. The seven works cover just over 30 years; the earliest one, Serenata Concertata, was Pickard’s first paid commission written at the age of twenty. In his liner notes, Pickard notes that he has an aversion to repeating himself: ‘so each new work tends to be a reaction against the character, structure and technique of the previous one… The result has been a body of work with a wide expressive range and this disc gives some indication of that. The pieces on it are grouped in a broad progression from the serious to the more lighthearted.’

The two opening works are indeed inspired by serious matters – the background to The Gardener of Aleppo is the war in Syria, while Daughters of Zion, the only vocal work on the disc, sets a text that reflects on anti-Jewish aspects of certain Early Christian celebrations. In the latter work, Susan Bickley joins the players of the celebrated Nash Ensemble, who go on to lighter fare in Three Chicken Studies (Pickard himself has kept chickens as pets) and Ghost Train, a perpetuum mobile built on a cantus firmus derived from the Dies ira theme. For this and the other chamber ensemble pieces the conductor Martyn Brabbins, a longtime collaborator of Pickard’s, wields his baton.

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Review by Mark Werlin - July 19, 2020

It has been the practice of BIS label chief Robert von Bahr to form long-term commitments to some of the composers whose work he records, notably Kalevi Aho, and more recently, British composer John Pickard. "The Gardener of Aleppo", a recording of Pickard's chamber works, follows two SACDs on the BIS label of large-scale symphonic works: Pickard: Eden, Symphony No. 4 - Hanson and Pickard: Sixteen Sunrises, Symphony No. 5, Concertante Variations - Brabbins; and several earlier CDs.

For the new SACD, the composer selected compositions that span more than three decades of musical production. The importance of composing works that can be grasped and appreciated by the musicians who perform them figures prominently in Pickard's musical development. In an interview from 2018 posted at ArnoldBax.com, when asked what he had learned from his first teacher, the Welsh composer William Mathias, Pickard said:

"[Mathias's] main influence was really about inculcating a sense of professionalism: delivering what is required, on time and in a state that performers can immediately make sense of. It’s amazing how many gifted composers simply don’t have those abilities."

The popular success of Pickard's orchestral works suggests that audiences as well as musicians can make sense of his writing, notwithstanding its rigorous modernism. This is the second recording of "Snowbound" — an earlier performance was released on Toccata Classics. All the compositions are receiving their premiere release in high resolution and multichannel format.

For classical music listeners, the touchstone to this selection of Picard's works will be Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, composed in 1915, one of the great musician's late sonatas. The parallels to Pickard's "The Gardener of Aleppo", written for the same ensemble of flute, viola and harp, 100 years later, are striking. The late sonatas of Debussy reflected his awareness of the imminence of his own death from cancer, and his despair at the catastrophic loss of life — especially the lives of the young — in the ongoing Great War.

Pickard was moved to write "The Gardener", when in 2016 he learned about Abu al-Ward, who for five years, through continuous bombings, had operated the last remaining garden center in Eastern Aleppo, Syria. The death of Abu al-Ward in a bombing raid moved Pickard to put pen to music paper, to revisit the disastrous circumstances of war and attendant destruction whose recurrence a century of progress had failed to prevent. The fragile timbre of the flute, carrying associations with birdsong, the agility of the harp and the throatiness of the viola, project the composer's intentions not in a strict programmatic sense, but through evocation and suggestion.

Pickard's 1984 piece, "Serenata Concertata" for solo flute, clarinet, violin, cello, double bass and piano, reveals his early-developing skill at small ensemble orchestration, and an ease of expression; there is a notable absence of stridency or academic theory-centeredness in this piece.

Bassoonists must despair at the overuse of their chosen instrument as a humorous signifier. Throwing caution to the (wood)winds, Pickard deploys humor strategically in "The Phagotus of Afranio", a lively and argumentative musical dialogue between the bassoon and the piano, wherein each instrument contends for, but only one attains, the last word.

Jazzy-sounding wind accents over a perpetuum mobile piano riff send "Ghost Train" on a fast spin through the musical equivalent of a careening fairground ride. Pickard describes the source material as a "complex transformation and sometimes through obvious parody—from the plainchant of the Dies iræ from the Sequence of the Latin Mass for the Dead." The piece, written in 2016, is scored for the same instrumentation as the "Serenata Concertata", with the wind players doubling on lower and higher-register instruments. A very different sounding work, which reflects Pickard's acknowledged tendency not to repeat himself. The piece lurches through broad, energetic gestures and sudden silences, creating a sense of tension that is finally released in a calm and meditative coda.

The skilled musicians of The Nash Ensemble convey the many facets John Pickard's work, pathos, lyricism, and incisive wit, in first-rate recorded sound.

Producer-engineer Simon Fox-Gál, grandson of composer Hans Gál, has produced numerous recordings of Hans Gál's works over the past decade. A trained musician as well as a tonmeister, Simon Fox-Gál brings to his productions a thorough grasp of modern music and a personal connection to the experiences of his grandfather, who escaped to Great Britain from Nazi-occupied Central Europe. Given that pedigree, any recording by Fox-Gál deserves attention, and this is no exception.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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