Superlative Premiere of Pickard’s Emotional, Well Integrated Fifth Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pickard, Elgar, Walton: Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 7.6.2016. (PCG)

William Walton – Johannesburg Festival Overture (1956)
Edward Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 (1918-19)
John Pickard – Symphony No 5 (2014)   world premiere

It is over ten years now since John Pickard’s fourth symphony Gaia was completed, and for his return to the ‘form’ of the symphony the composer has reverted to the sphere of purely absolute music – although the emotional impact of the score certainly implied an underlying ‘programme’ of some sort. In fact Pickard, in an interview with Nicola Heywood Thomas before the première performance here, contended that in modern terms the idea of ‘symphonic form’ was something of a myth. This statement is of course certainly correct insofar as it goes, but the recurrence of themes throughout the one-movement work established with assurance a recognisable sense of proportion and architecture. Indeed, although the programme note by Peter Reynolds drew attention to the contrast between fast and slow music, the relevant sections were so well integrated that a sense of purposeful evolution was apparent throughout which was wholly satisfying.

The whole work was bound together by three sets of timpani, distributed antiphonally across the back of the stage, whose dialogue with each other drove the music forward relentlessly; there were also distant echoes of Britten (the storm music of Peter Grimes and the bells from Death in Venice both left their mark) and the flurried woodwind interjections conjured up images of Stravinsky’s depiction of the ghost of the puppet in Petrushka. But there was absolutely no sense of imitation here; Pickard’s imagery was entirely his own creation, and the warmth of the principal melody (introduced on brass and taken up by richly massed strings) was magnificently realised. The orchestra was slightly enlarged (apart from the multiple timpani, there were four trombones rather than the usual three and Pickard added a double-bass clarinet as he had in his Tenebrae a few years back; the composer assured me that the orchestral management had never raised the slightest query about the additional personnel involved. Good for them.

The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio Three, and recording sessions had been arranged by BIS for the following day to set the work down on CD for future release. Before writing this review I listened to the broadcast relay on the BBC i-player service, and it has to be noted that the sound on air was considerably different to the impact in the hall. In the first place much of the music was very loud indeed (rivalling the sheer volume of Ives or Shostakovich) in the confined acoustics of the Hoddinott Hall, and this sense of power was inevitably somewhat lost in the radio transmission. In the second place, the reverberation meant that the stereo distinction between the three sets of timpani was blurred in the hall (although the visual element of the three players passing material from one to another helped to overcome this) while on the broadcast microphone placement made the interplay between the trio much clearer. This was particularly the case in the cadenza-like passage near the still centre of the work as themes passed between the players over sustained string chords. I hope that the BIS engineers will be able to reconcile these elements; and if they do, the resulting recording will be recommendable indeed. Martyn Brabbins, who has done so much to promote Pickard’s music, obtained superlative orchestral playing from the BBC NoW. Nor should we forget to acknowledge with gratitude the fact that the work was commissioned by John Grimshaw specifically for the orchestra, despite the inexplicable delay of two years before this first performance.

Not all commissions work out so happily, as was witnessed earlier by Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture written for a South African premiere and commissioned from the composer while he was already at work on his Cello Concerto as well as attending performances of Troilus and Cressida at La Scala. The overture was dedicated to Andrè Kostelanetz, who repaid the compliment by cutting the score before he eventually got round to performing it some years later (the first outing was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent). Walton himself was dismissive too: he wrote that the overture had been “a wow in jo-burg, not that means much (except 400 smackers ‘tax free’).” At the time of the premiere one South African critic observed that “a local composer would have written something more indigenous…at half Walton’s fee.” Unfortunately, he seems to have been justified. Although Walton asked for the African Music Society to send him recordings of traditional music, their influence on the score seems to have been limited to the introduction of a few passages featuring ethnic percussion; and even these, in the manner in which they are employed, sound more Latin American than sub-Saharan. Otherwise the music seems to inhabit much the same world thematically as Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida, and despite the undeniable technical facility it hardly rises above the realm of light music, excellent in its own right but certainly not a forgotten masterpiece.

Between these two contrasted works Alban Gerhardt played Elgar’s Cello Concerto and placed a very distinctive slant on the score. A couple of years back in Cardiff Natalie Clein and Edward Gardner had presented a lovingly affectionate account which barely managed to avoid becoming totally becalmed in places (as for example where the observation of Elgar’s markings of Poco piu lento in the finale completely disregarded the poco part of the direction). Here Gerhardt and Brabbins took a much more resolute approach, driving the music forward in the manner of Elgar himself on his recordings and positively revelling in the vulgarity of the trombone writing in the last movement to startling and stirring effect. One rather hopes that these two performers will consign their performance to CD at some time; it would make an interesting contrast to the du Prè/Barbirolli approach which has become traditional over the years. One result of the relatively swift speeds (although it must not be thought that the slower passages were short-changed) was that the cellist was able to explain engagingly to the audience that he had found time for an encore in the shape of a movement from a Bach suite. Indeed this was a good-humoured concert, where not only Gerhardt but Brabbins and Pickard during their interviews elicited laughter from a very full audience. And I am sure that we shall be hearing Pickard’s Fifth again.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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