PICKARD Sixteen Sunrises. Symphony No 5
The chief work on BIS’s fourth CD devoted to the music of John Pickard (b1963) is his Fifth and most recent Symphony, composed in an intense burst of creativity in the early months of 2014. (Its predecessor, the Gaia Symphony for brass band – 11/14 – took 13 years to achieve its final form!) Pickard’s five symphonies cover his entire career to date, the still-unperformed First written in 1983‑84; like it and the eruptive Second (1985‑87), No 5 is in one continuous movement lasting around half an hour. The music fair kidnaps the listener’s attention at the outset and does not ransom it until the gripping, wholly satisfying close. The structure alternates fast and slow episodes, shortening or lengthening like some vast process of respiration, pivoting around the main central slow section, the tempos phasing and overlapping as the movement progresses. Those knowing McCabe’s Of Time and the River will recognise a kindred spirit here, even if the result is quite different.
The performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is stunning in its virtuosity (especially the three timpanists) and Brabbins shapes the whole edifice grippingly, as in the couplings. The tone poem Sixteen Sunrises (2013) – premiered by Brabbins in Nagoya, Japan, and dedicated to the late composer and author Malcolm MacDonald (1948-2014) – is more relaxed, an essay on light, while the delightful Concertante Variations for wind quintet, timpani and strings (2011), with Tippett-like freshness, spotlights Pickard’s superb handling of medium-size forces. The music throughout is in this composer’s dynamic, driving, 21st-century tonal idiom, recognisably British but Pickard’s own. The final track sidesteps expectations a touch with a witty reworking of Monteverdi for Scelsi-esque ensemble: what would Claudio have made of the saxophone? A superb disc, great sound: my disc of the year so far.