Long Awaited British Premiere of Pickard’s Tenebrae

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Pickard, Britten, Bridge: Matthew Trusler (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 8.1.2013 (PCG)

John Pickard: Tenebrae (2008)
Britten: Violin Concerto, Op.15 (1965 revision)
Bridge: The Sea (1911)

This concert opened with the British première of John Pickard’s Tenebrae, first performed in Norrköping over two years ago. It is amazing that it has had to wait so long before its appearance here. The work is less obviously programmatic than earlier Pickard works such as The flight of Icarus or Channel firing,being in part a psychological study of the character and work of Gesualdo and partly a reflection on themes of darkness and despair. The composer himself gave an introductory talk to outline the thoughts that underlay the work, together with some orchestral examples, and to illustrate some of the more unusual elements in the scoring – bass oboe, double-bass clarinet, 2 double bassoons and 2 tubas. I hope that when this concert is broadcast on 11 January this talk will be included – it is rare to find a composer so articulate and entertaining.

The work itself opens with Fafnerian rumbles, which the composer explained were intended to illustrate the idea of a prisoner in a dungeon; the extreme high and low registers of the orchestra were contrasted very effectively including chains (as in Gürrelieder) which lent an element of spectacle. This was indeed a fine example of Post-romantic Expressionism through which the harmonies of Gesualdo himself occasionally shone, and which built to an impassioned climax. After this the despairing oboes sounded positively Mahlerian in tone, and even the piccolo sounded warm and consoling. From this point the troubled music built up again, but there was no sense of repetition as the musical material sounded entirely fresh. The music brought to mind the music associated with Wozzeck’s final moments, over which the Gesualdo material faded into stunned silence before retiring to the subterranean rumblings of the opening.

This is quite simply a magnificent work with an emotional engagement which is extremely rare in modern music, and it was given a stunning performance by Brabbins and the orchestra. After such an impassioned piece one was grateful for the interval which followed; nothing else could have followed this.

After the interval Matthew Trusler stepped in at short notice to play Britten’s Violin Concerto. This was the fourth of the concertos (some unpublished) that Britten wrote during his earlier years, and the last of his concertante works to be specifically labelled as such – the later Diversions for piano and Cello Symphony had other concerns than mere display. The concerto does not have the sense of lyrical effusion that one associates with other violin concertos of the period – such as Bax or Moeran – and instead betrays continental influences, most notably that of Bartók. The opening timpani figure may echo Beethoven’s concerto, but it also brings to mind Richard Strauss’s Burleske. It is an oddly proportioned work, with two slower movements surrounding a central scherzo, and the final passacaglia is nearly as long as the first two movements together. In this performance a comparison with Britten’s own recording found a bigger body of strings here, and Trusler more lyrical than Lubotsky; he relished the clear influences of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the scherzo. However one could not avoid the feeling that Britten felt increasingly uncomfortable with the element of display that is entailed in a concerto, and the orchestration particularly in the finale is very heavy. Trusler did the best he could with some of the impossibly tricky writing, but I suspect that the passages which combine double-stopping with harmonics and left-hand pizzicato can never sound wholly confident or idiomatic. Brabbins allowed the orchestra to predominate in the passacaglia – as Britten clearly intended – but after the catharsis of the Pickard the lack of the composer’s emotional involvement was palpable.

For the final item in the concert we turned to the early suite The Sea by Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge. This is a work which the orchestra knows well, having recorded it as part of their complete Bridge survey with Richard Hickox, and they coped excellently with a score that is not easy to play (a couple of very minor slips notwithstanding). Despite its sharing of two movement titles with Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes this work has little in common with the latter. One detects not only the inevitable influence of Debussy’s La mer but also of Delius, whose works had begun to be performed in London at the time of composition. On the other hand Bridge also anticipates not only such works as Bax’s Tintagel but also, more unexpectedly, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë which at the time of writing was yet to appear. The work also displays Bridge’s absolute mastery of the romantic orchestra, and the score is carefully designed in a manner that always eluded Delius – which is not to say that one simply has to play the notes, and all will be well. Martyn Brabbins has in the last couple of years taken up the mantle of the lamented Richard Hickox and Vernon Handley as a champion of obscure and forgotten British twentieth century scores, and the performance here demonstrated exactly why. Even the violas, who were given an independent call, sounded entirely at ease with the fiendishly difficult high writing that Bridge (a viola player himself) gave them in the opening bars.

This concert is being broadcast on 11 January on Radio 3 and will be available on the BBC i-player for seven days thereafter. It is well worth a listen, particularly for the Pickard Tenebrae. The latter work has also been recorded by Martyn Brabbins with the Norrköping orchestra for forthcoming release on BIS – and is worth looking out for.


Paul Corfield Godfrey