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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2008

For those who don't know him, this exceptional release from BIS will serve as an outstanding introduction to the music of John Pickard (b. 1963), who is one of the most talented British composers alive today. A student of Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992) and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (b. 1939, see the newsletter of 7 May 2006), Pickard's compositions, as exemplified by the three selections here, are striking for their directness, dynamism and solid construction, which give them immediate appeal.

The Flight of Icarus (1990) is a twenty-minute symphonic poem inspired by that timeless Greek myth about man's first flight. Pounding drums and forte orchestral effects begin the piece with what Pickard describes as a "lift-off." This airborne music dissolves briefly into a slower, more restrained passage before returning with even more vehemence than before. But Icarus sails too near the sun, melting the wax that binds his feathered wings, and plunges to his death. The work ends with a moving, tragic epilogue to our fallen hero, reminding us of the disasters man brings upon himself through excessive hubris.

Scored for trombone, percussion and strings, The Spindle of Necessity (1998) is not only a symphonic poem, but also a very effective one movement trombone concerto. It's based on a story from another classical Greek source, the last book of Plato's Republic. Rather than going into details here (see the informative album notes), suffice it to say that the trombone could be likened to an astronaut exploring and commenting on some fabulous celestial sound world created by the other instruments. It may bring back memories of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's (b. 1958) award-winning clarinet concerto (Ondine ODE 1038-2) where the clarinet plays a very similar role.

Channel Firing (1992-93), based on a poem by Thomas Hardy, is the most flamboyant of the three symphonic poems here. Scored for a huge orchestra with organ, the massive opening and closing sections couldn't better convey the sound of gunnery practice that Hardy describes in his verse. Funereal in spirit, this gloom-and-doom musical commentary on the futility of war packs an overwhelming emotional punch, making it a contemporary masterpiece you’ll not soon forget.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins once again shows his consummate skill in holding together and effectively communicating complex orchestral scores (see the newsletter of 1 June 2007). The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra responds to his every demand with performances as articulate as they are overpowering. Trombonist Christian Lindberg is in fine form, delivering what is probably a definitive performance of what must be one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary brass concertos to come down the pike in recent years.

As far as symphonic music is concerned, Pickard is a colorist in the best sense of the term, and gives the BIS recording engineers some spectacular source material to work with. They were certainly up to the challenge because this release is demonstration quality in every respect. With a perfectly proportioned and focused soundstage, ethereal highs and sonic boom bass, it will test the limits of the best sound systems. So batten down the hatches, turn up the level and get ready for some heavy weather when you spin this one.

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