Fanfare Magazine: Toccata Classics Chamber Music Volume Two

PICKARD String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 • Brodowski Qrt • TOCCATA 0197 (64:08)

My previous Pickard review, in Fanfare 36:4, covered Toccata Classics’ enterprising first installment of the music of John Pickard. Here is the second volume, which effectively acts as confirmation of Pickard as a composer of original voice and deft compositional technique. There is a Bergian combination of lyricism and angst that underlies much of the writing of the String Quartet No. 1 of 1991 (particularly the intense second section, but also in the shadowy Prestissimo of the eighth); yet the impression is simultaneously that of a folkloric longing of a lost past. The piece is in 10 short sections (including two fugues), each of which manages to say huge amounts in small time-spans. The Brodowski Quartet (2008 winners of the Royal Overseas League Competition) plays with huge conviction and massive technical security.

The Fifth Quartet was premiered in April 2013, and represents Pickard’s first quartet after a five-year absence from this genre. Although shorter than the First (some 26 minutes as opposed to 38), it is no slip of a piece. And yet, the impression is of a new concise way of expression. The tense, serious, shifting opening houses kinetic energy that is pent up like a coiled spring. As that energy uncoils, the performance by the Brodowski Quartet reaches almost unbearable levels of intensity; the “Desolato” movement that follows offers relief from ongoing movement, but little more. The heaviness of the emotion is palpable, especially in as heartfelt a performance as this one. It is easy to get dragged in, not to notice how exquisitely the textures are balanced, or how sweetly the phrases are tapered. Pickard’s Fifth Quartet is a magnificent creation, perfectly proportioned, almost classically so, and yet containing a wealth of feeling. The pizzicatos of the third and central movement (there are five) are superbly done here, descending gestures like falling rain. The fourth movement certainly lives up to its title (“Drammatico”), but also seems to be trying to find a voice by trying out different instrumental combinations. The intense and fraught Finale seems the perfect end, technically challenging yet not overtly virtuoso. Rather, it exudes a buzzing energy that is wonderfully invigorating.

A truly superb disc, beautifully engineered (it was recorded in St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London). Volume Two of Pickard’s chamber music is in every way as impressive as Volume One—perhaps more so. Colin Clarke

This article originally appeared in Issue 37:5 (May/June 2014) of Fanfare Magazine.