Classical Lost and Found review string quartets nos 1 and 5

Pickard: Chbr Wks V2 (Stg Qts 1 & 5); Brodowski Qt [Toccata]

It’s been almost six years since English composer John Pickard (b. 1963) has appeared in these pages, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back! Previously we told you about some of his orchestral pieces (see 30 March 2008), and now the adventurous Toccata label gives us the first and last of the five string quartets he’s written to date. Both are world premiere recordings.

Pickard, who studied with William Mathias (1934-1992) and Louis Andriessen (b. 1939, see the newsletter of 7 May, 2006), writes tonal contemporary music with solid links to the past. What’s more there’s a sincerity, drive and structural rigor that make it intellectually challenging while at the same time immediately appealing. Like his symphonic works mentioned above, these quartets bear repeated listening.

Regarding his first quartet (1991), in his informative album notes Pickard quotes the old saw “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread” from Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) poem An Essay on Criticism (1709). And that would seem appropriate to a single movement work lasting almost forty minutes undertaken by a composer who was only twenty-seven.

But he goes on to say it was unproblematic, a claim which seems fully supported by the youthful flowing opus presented here. Falling into ten segments that are conveniently banded for easy access, the slow introductory one has the simple metronome marking of 48 quarter note beats per minute [T-1].

It’s based on three tetrachords (TT) [00:03] as defined in the modern sense, whose notes constitute a chromatic scale. There’s an ever increasing harmonic density reminiscent of Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) later quartets.

The music then coalesces into the next segment with the self-explanatory title “Unison melody I” [T-2]. Here all four instruments launch into an extended theme (UI) [00:00] providing the material for the next three sections. The first of these, a dreamy “Prelude” [T-3], brings Szymanowski (1882-1937, see 18 February 2009) to mind, while the spirit of Beethoven (1770-1827) seems to dominate the solid “Fugue I” [T-4], and Bartok (1881-1945) a virtuosically frenzied “Fugue II” [T-5].

The latter slows and bridges via some pensive passagework into “Unison melody II” (UII) [T-6] that’s a reworking of UI. Then after a brief pause we get “Meditation” [T-7], which is an elaboration of UII over a shuddering pianissimo accompaniment.

This concludes with hushed hints of its opening measures, and gives way to a thrilling “Prestissimo” [T-8]. At almost nine minutes it’s the work’s longest section, which to paraphrase the composer comes in three waves of strengthening force and momentum.

The succeeding “Climax” [T-9], which begins with an agonized phrase [00:00] followed by an fff reminder of TT [00:02], is a mixture of the last wave and elements of the work’s slow introduction. It serves as a braking action splintering the music into motific fragments that recall the piece’s opening measures.

They spiral upwards disappearing like smoke from a dying campfire. Then after a brief caesura we get the final “Coda” based on TT [T-10], which brings the quartet full circle. It leaves the listener with a feeling of expectancy, making a good teaser for the next one, which the composer says revisits aspects of the first.

The fifth quartet came some twenty years later (2011-2), and was premiered by the artists on this release. In five movements that alternate between fast and slow, the initial “Inquieto” (“Restless”) [T-11] is a compelling discourse that begins agreeably with all four players intoning a pragmatic extended melody (PE) [00:01] in unison. However, a difference of opinion breaks out as two of them decide to render PE a whole-tone away. This leads to an engaging developmental clash where an attempt to regain unanimity fails, ending the movement indecisively.

It would seem regret over inability to reach an accord fills the melancholy “Desolato” (“Disconsolate”) [T-12], but the mood lightens in “Prestissimo…” [T-13]. A scherzoesque movement smacking of Mendelssohn (1809-1847), its outer sections surround an uproarious pizzicato episode where the players nearly fall all over each other [01:40-02:24]. It ends with another wisp of smoke from that campfire mentioned above.

In the following “Drammatico” [T-14] the four instruments appear intent on reaching a consensus over PE. What starts off as an agonized argument with a frantic variety of solos, duos and trios [00:01] is finally resolved by the viola calmly alluding to it [03:24]. The other instruments then join in, concluding the movement with the same feeling of conformity that characterized the work’s beginning.

But the controversy flares up again in the final virtuosic “Molto energico” [T-15], which starts with the discordant clash encountered in the first movement. However, references to past ideas in the thrilling developmental discourse that follows [01:28] indicate lessons have been learned as evidenced by the PE-derived reconciliatory recap [04:47] and coda [05:43] that follow. The quartet then ends like it began with all four instruments playing a unison note.

The members of the London-based Brodowski Quartet give stirring accounts of both works. Their technical mastery tempered with careful attention to the rhythmic and melodic intricacies of these scores make a strong case for them.

Made at St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, the recordings project a generously proportioned soundstage that remains amazingly well focused despite the considerably reverberant surroundings. The strings have an agreeable brightness that complements Pickard’s wiry creations. Contemporary chamber music enthusiasts as well as audiophiles liking wetter sonics should give this disc a spin.

— Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y140110)