Reviews of Dutton CD of John Pickard’s Quartets 2 -4

BBC Music Magazine September 2002


String Quartets Nos. 2-4
Sorrel Quartet
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7117
66:21 mins

“What other contemporary composer would state with pride that his string quartets ‘deliberately avoid unconventional playing techniques: tremolandi. artificial harmonics, use of the mute – even pizzicati – all are rigorously excluded!’ If that attitude seems positively puritanical, it’s the positive that needs stressing: over the past decade or so, John Pickard has emerged as one of the most substantial (ie his music is all substance, with no mere effect) among British composers working today. Although his teachers included William Mathias and Louis Andriessen, Robert Simpson seems to have been a decisive inspiration for Pickard’s powerful urge to organic growth and mastery of dynamic motion. With Simpson he shares the ability to move from stillness to furious activity, and back again, clearly demonstrated in the one movement Second Quartet (three sections all over the same basic pulse). The three-movement Third (1994) contrasts an opening Con Fuoco with a sombre central movement, harmonising these extremes in a valedictory, deeply moving elegiac finale. The Fourth (1997 -8) casts its net wider, with elements of Baroque stylisation but a thoroughly contemporary sensibility. Altogether this is magnificent quartet writing and makes an excellent vehicle for one of the finest young British quartets: in fact the four witty ‘concerti’ that form No. 4’s central movement are ‘impudent character sketches’ of the individuals that make up the Sorrel. Enthusiastically recommended: the British quartet tradition is alive and very well in
these works.”
Calum MacDonald


GRAMOPHONE August 2002

String Quartets – No 2; No 3; No 4
Sorrel Quartet
(Gina McCormack, Catherine Yates vns, Sarah-Jane Bradley va, Helen Thatcher vc)
Dutton Epoch CDLX7117 (66 minutes: DDD)

Substantial new additions to the quartet repertoire, sensitively brought to life”My ‘Take Five’ feature last December speculated in passing on the ‘symphonic’ nature of several major string quartet composers from last century. As his gripping Piano Sonata (Athene, 9/98) suggested, John Pickard (b 1963) is grounded in this line of thinking – and his understanding of large-scale form is heard to the full in the quartets featured on the present disc.
As the composer points out in his informative booklet note, the Second Quartet (1993) is on one level a reaction against the formal complexities of its predecessor (1991, also in one movement). Yet there’s nothing flaccid about the warmly ruminative opening (think of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet), or the emotive viola soliloquy that builds intently to a vibrant and affirmative ending. The Third Quartet (1994) pursues an unusual but convincing trajectory: a vehement Con fuoco leading into a powerfully sustained Molto intensivo, followed by an equivocal yet cathartic Con moto – the accumulated tension sublimated rather than released. The Fourth Quartet (1998) is an intriguing take on Baroque procedures from a present-day perspective. After a ‘Sinfonia’ of Beethovenian density and impact, a Bartokian sequence of ‘Concerti’ for each instrument allows for the judicious employment of a wide range of playing techniques; then the ‘Fantasia of Four Parts’ accelerates between the extremes of stasis and dynamism with an inevitability recalling Robert Simpson in approach if not in idiom – which is demonstrably and persuasively Pickard’s.
The Sorrel Quartet realise all three works with the same sensitivity of spirit and unanimity of response that has made their Shostakovich quartets for Chandos the pick of several still continuing cycles. Spacious yet well-defined sound from The Maltings, Snape acoustic, and a timely release that no one at all concerned with coherence and renewal in contemporary music can afford to ignore.”

Richard Whitehouse

International Record Review, September 2002

String Quartets – No.2; No.3; No.4. Sorrel String Quartet
(Gina McCormack, Catherine Yates, violins; Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola; Helen Thatcher, cello).
Dutton Epoch CDLX7117 (medium price, 1 hour 6 minutes). Producer Mike Purton. Engineer Tony Faulkner. Date December 6th-8th, 2001.

“John Pickard is a young (b.1963) British composer whose work is so unfashionably musical, well written and good that he may well turn out to be the finest and most lasting British composer of his generation. He is a genuine musical thinker, an imaginative and sensitive composer with an admirable technical command, which enables him to ‘think’ music from within – if you get what I mean. Not for him the thoughtless overlaying of effects in place of absolute, intrinsic motion. There are no elements of trendiness in Pickard’s work, although he is no musical backwoodsman – in other words, this is music of today, written by a level-headed yet responsive individual whose work commands our respect and attention.
You might think as much when the ensemble that plays these three scores is the Sorrel Quartet. This young group has rightly won significant praise from many quarters, and we can take it as read that they would not bother themselves with a trendy ‘here-today-and-gone-tomorrow’ composer.
These three quartets (1993-98) are very different yet consistently worthwhile works. The Second, in one movement, is a more concentrated piece than the exuberant First Quartet of 1991 (also in one movement, but far longer); it is this element of concentration – in both senses – which is ultimately so impressive. Pickard does not waste a note, yet his ideas are not epigrammatic, and we follow the argument as if we were reading an engrossing short story.
The Third and Fourth Quartets each have three movements but are very different: No. 3 is the somewhat more intense but lucid work, and No. 4 rather daringly looks to Classical partita structures, but is admirably conceived and ends in an athletic accumulation of energy. The performances are superb, as are the recordings; the booklet notes are by the composer. This enterprising release is strongly recommended.”
Robert Matthew- Walker

Tempo, January 2003

PICKARD: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 & 4. Sorrel Quartet. Dutton Epoch CDLX 7117.

“I recently managed, all too easily, to shock a bien-pensant, avowedly ‘unshockable’ friend. My unconscionably exotic peccadillo? To have wondered aloud whether Duruflé is ultimately a greater composer than Messiaen.
I recalled this exchange while enjoying the Sorrel Quartet’s disc of works from the 1990’s by John Pickard. Not to force an adventitious analogy with Duruflé (nothing of chant and incense about the young British symphonist); but one finds here the same self-discipline and pride in achieving a discourse purely by means of notes and their combinations, with no lurid, garish effects or bells and whistles flung at everything. There are even some actual technical means in common: harmony, for instance, derived from equally-tempered assimilation of the fourth-octave-up of the overtone series, and from other familiar modes and scales (such as the octatonic) in general, with shared pivot-notes or ambiguous whole-tone material for subtle transitions.
Overtone-series harmony, though, one should say at once, saturated with echoes of tonal functionality, and thus (this being the crucial forward-looking point) made dynamic, in sharpest possible contrast with the stupefied navel-gazing of the vapider musique spectrale on both sides of the Channel. The region of the overtone-series in question easily equates, of course, to Bartók’s ‘acoustic scale’; though even a listener primed by references to Bartók and dynamism might forgivably be startled by the extraordinary barrage with which Pickard opens his Third Quartet, and which seems entirely textural; statistical (à la Xenakis), even. It is moments like this that surely give the lie to any conception of Pickard as neo-pastoralist with quill pen in hand; even as the instruments here fan out from their near-unison into harmony, the result is remarkably dissonant. But still, though, utterly coherent (at least as far back as the cardinal progression in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata, Pickard must be accounted a master harmonist), and quite individual. The instants where he recalls other composers – Britten, say, in the slow section of the Second Quartet (incredibly lovely lyrical playing from the Sorrels here) when the high intertwining lines momentarily recall the wheeling sea-birds over coastal Suffolk of the scherzo of Britten¹s Second, or Tippett in the subsequent burst of Midsummer-madrigalian cross-relations – these are (though hardly inept) the passages where Pickard seems least himself: his is not a style of synthetic pastiche, even if its energy has antecedents traceable through Tippett or Pickard’s mentor Robert Simpson back at least as far as Beethoven. There is, too, the odd touch of Walton, and not just in the Second Quartet’s Mediterraneanism.
That the composer’s note refers only to this aspect of Portmeirion, where the piece was premièred, with nary a mention of cult 1960s TV series, bespeaks a cultural high-mindedness rare among his generation. But if Pickard seems to evoke (and this quite without the direct, stridently rhetorical appeal to ‘Albion’ of certain actually more stilted and musically infinitely flimsier offerings of recent years by native contemporaries) an England without spin-doctors, reality game-shows and Mondeo Man, an England where music-lovers spontaneously commission string quartets (real ones, from real composers), then neither is he the stereotypical ‘young fogey’, either musically (as already noted), or indeed politically; for an avowed anti-Thatcherite to have had repeatedly to look to funding from private benefactors is a terrific irony surely not wasted on the composer.
But even without becoming embroiled in polemics, there is so much here to admire: the fabulously skilful, thoroughly idiomatic handling of the actual quartet medium; even without ‘effects’, the unflaggingly imaginative inventiveness as regards variety of texture; the utterly convincing formal experiment of the Third Quartet’s first two movements. Of Pickard the harmonist I have already spoken, and indeed could speak more: one could write paragraphs just about the opening harmony of the First Quartet (at 40 minutes too substantial a work, alas, to be included on this disc).
Indeed, as his 40th birthday looms on the horizon, surely the time is overdue for a major publisher to push the boat out for Pickard – a commentary on his work from a group of specialists, perhaps, at the very least. Or is this a forlorn hope for music whose values, after all, are never likely to be fashionable – given house-room by Radio 3, but only ever in week-day afternoon concerts by the regional orchestras, never in the ‘official’ new-music slot. Likewise, one can’t help reflecting, the Sorrels’ evident utter commitment to this repertoire (they are, apparently, ‘pictured within’ the Pickard Fourth Quartet) is unlikely – despite at least one claim to eminent political correctness – ever to win them a live webcast from The Warehouse.
All the more reason, then, to be thankful for this fine recording of the majority at least of so crucial a cycle, which allows one to conclude that even if Pickard were never to write another quartet in his life, his place among the greats is secure.”

Mark R. Taylor