International Record Review String Quartets Nos 1 and 5

Pickard New Chamber Music, Volume 2.

String Quartets – No. 1a; No. 5b.

Brodowski Quartet (David Brodowski, Catrin Win Morgan, violins; Felix Tanner, viola; Reinoud Ford, cello).

Toccata Classics TOCC0197 (full price, 1 hour 4 minutes).


Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder. Dates July a10th and b11th, 2013.

With both BIS and Toccata Classics committed to his music, John Pickard is becoming increasingly well represented on disc. This second release of chamber music from the latter (the first was reviewed in October 2012) brings together the earliest and most recent of his string quartets (Nos. 2-4 were recorded by the Sorrel Quartet for Dutton and reviewed in September 2002), thereby reaffirming his prowess in a genre to which his contribution has already set him among its leading practitioners at the outset of the century. Different in terms of their conception and content though they may be, these quartets are discernibly the work of one wholly at ease with the requirements of technical precision and abstraction of thought.

Whether or not one agrees with Pickard’s observation that a ‘first quartet’ represents a moment of truth in the career of a composer, his First Quartet (1991) certainly occupies a defining place in his output – transmuting the emotional extremes of his Second Symphony and Piano Sonata (recorded by Raymond Clarke for Divine Art) into a more rounded and wide-ranging expression. Its 38-minute single movement brings to mind late Beethoven and Robert Simpson (albeit the First String Quintet rather than the quartets), though Nicholas Maw’s own First Quartet may be a more relevant precursor in its drawing the archetypal movements into a continuous and cumulative whole. Divided here into ten tracks, the work can be heard (and no doubt interpreted) in various ways – not least as a five-part entity: the initial motto theme with its attendant instrumental solos merging into a broad unison melody (tracks 1 and 2), then into a calm though expectant ‘Prelude’ that intensifies over the course of two fugues (tracks 3-5). At the climax of the latter, a further unison melody unfolds towards a rapt ‘Meditation’ (tracks 6 and 7) where aspects of the motto theme are pensively recalled prior to a lengthy ‘Prestissimo’ (track 8) which gains all the while in impetus and momentum as it heads to the main climax. From here, the music evanesces into a ‘Coda’ that brings matters full circle with its calmly inevitable restatement of the motto theme (tracks 9 and 10).

An impressive achievement, then, and an assured account by the Brodowski Quartet that leaves no doubt as to the work’s innate cohesion. Perhaps those unison melodies could have been rendered with even greater intensity, while both the approach to and the climax itself lack the final degree of visceral power necessary to drive home the music’s unequivocal intent, yet it would be wrong not to laud the ensemble’s commitment to and understanding of a piece which represents a high point in the quartet literature of the post-war era. Hopefully the present musicians will have the opportunity to give it in a live context before long, and other quartets will be encouraged to take up its undeniable though rewarding challenge.

Pickard’s Fifth Quartet (2012) was his first for 13 years, during which period he produced works such as the large-scale choral Agamemnon’s Tomb and the Gesualdo-inspired orchestral piece Tenebrae (reviewed in May 2012). The present work’s starting point is the conceptual gulf in understanding between individuals that can emerge imperceptibly yet lead to a conflict which is not easily rectified. Pickard traces this ‘scenario’ across five movements that are a model of formal and expressive integration after the fact. Thus the opening ‘Inquieto’ begins with a purposeful unison theme which loses focus as the music fractures into an ever more disparate interplay. Despite moments of unanimity, the ensuing ‘Desolato’ is as sombre as its title suggests, while the ‘Prestissimo e leggiero’ is a fugitive scherzo of textural and rhythmic ingenuity – leading without pause into a ‘Drammatico’ that unfolds as a sequence of anguished solos, duos and trios. Near the end, the viola brings a measure of calm which the final ‘Molto energico’ instils with a cumulative sense of purpose that, drawing earlier and more ambivalent ideas into its orbit, advances towards a hard-won affirmation. For all its relative modesty of duration, this quartet admits of no false concession and the Brudowski rises to the challenge with playing that encapsulates the music’s range of emotion as convincingly as it renders audible the work’s long-term structural cohesion.

Both performances have been admirably recorded in an acoustic (St Paul’s, Ne Southgate, London) which must rank among the ideal quartet venues in its combination of spaciousness and immediacy, while the composer contributes notes that are as frank as they are informative. He has been fortunate with his past exponents – the Britten, Allegri and Sorrel Quartets all having championed his earlier quartets – and there can be little doubt that this looks set to continue with the Brodowski. One looks forward to more recordings by this ensemble, as well as of Pickard’s own music. The present disc has been designated ‘Chamber Music, Volume Two’, so there should be a further disc (or two?) to come from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse