Agamemnon’s Tomb

Agamemnon’s Tomb

Tempo – October 2009
Huddersfield, Town Hall: John Pickard’s “Agamemnon’s Tomb”


‘I’m not a miniaturist’, admitted John Pickard in a pre-concert talk before the first performance of his new piece commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society. This is something of an understatement. He has written two of the most convincing large-scale symphonic works of recent years with his 40-minute Third Symphony (1997) and hour-long Gaia Symphony for brass band (2004), and even his works for reduced forces are wide-ranging in scope. However, one never feels that Pickard is deliberately taking the path to Gargantua out of some innate megalomania: he instinctively writes in broad paragraphs ripe for large-scale development and long-term working, which inexorably lead to compositions on a substantial scale, or, at least, with an unmistakably ‘epic’ quality.

It came as no great surprise, then, that Agamemnon’s Tomb (composed between 2005 and 2007) proved to be an ambitious, powerful and imposing 50-minute oratorio for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, large chorus, semi-chorus and large orchestra, including three percussion players, harp and organ. It sets substantial sections of Sacheverell Sitwell’s 1933 poem, of the same name: the title refers to the tomb at Mycenae, dating from around the 12th century BC, thought by its discoverer Schliemann to contain King Agamemnon’s remains. Throughout, the chorus sets the scene, presenting the text’s main themes; the soprano represents the voice of compassion, the tenor that of the poet encountering the tomb for the first time and the bass the embodiment of harsh reality. The orchestra, meanwhile, develops the musical argument on a symphonic canvas. Though subtitled ‘A Requiem’, it is not a religious work, as the text focuses on mortality and the memorializing of the dead.

There are two parts, the first involving images of death and entombment, particularly the physical experience of dying, the ultimate degradation of human remains (realities which the tomb is accused of trying to hide), and the horrors of dying while asleep or alone. Mercifully the second part lightens the tone, dealing with descriptions of the simple splendour of Agamemnon’s Tomb. The concluding chorus summarizes the work’s argument (‘We are the world and it will end with us …’). But the composer decided to end the work by countering this nihilistic, arrogant assertion with a tentative reference to Nature’s restorative force, as expressed in the poem a few lines earlier (‘Listen, listen, listen to the voice of the water…’).

Pickard introduces the work’s source material and establishes the mood in a sombre orchestral prelude, dark-hued and full of a sense of epic grandeur and scale. Eloquent woodwind phrases, a feature of the score throughout, arch over the solemn, processional tread of regular timpani strokes, funereal and threnodic. In these opening paragraphs, Pickard succeeds in the difficult but necessary task of evoking a sense of place without resorting to toe-curling cliches.

The style is bravely eclectic, taking in Expressionist flutter-tongued flutes in the baritone solo: ‘This may be worst of all … ’, recalling the barbarous central moment of the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the brutal tutti hammer blows of the chorus’s ‘Knock, knock, knock, these are the nails of the coffin. They go in easy …’. As well as a narrative, almost cinematic style at the tenor’s ‘In mist tossed, and shaken, in a sea of wrack’, hints of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe during the chorus ‘All is degradation …’; and yet Pickard’s own distinctive voice always prevails.

Agamemnon’s Tomb is consciously in the English choral tradition of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. However, despite its grand scale and heroic sweep, it is also a deeply personal work. Dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father, its focus on those left behind after death, as articulated by the soloists, brings a profound humanity to the piece. The overwhelming impression left by the world premiere performance is one of tremendously sombre intensity, confronting the terrors of death head on from a non-religious or humanist rather than anti-religious viewpoint, essentially concerned with this world rather than the next. In the closing paragraphs where the semi-chorus entreats us, tentatively, to ‘Listen to the voice of the water …’, Pickard wanted consciously to write beautiful music, something he has not striven for in previous works, and the results were wonderfully ethereal in the spirit of Holst’s Betelgeuse or ‘Neptune’ from The Planets and extremely poignant in this context, setting the seal on a genuinely elegiac work.

All the performers made a strong impression, but Martyn Brabbins deserves special mention for keeping his large forces tightly together and maintaining an impressive, structural hold. His keen understanding of Pickard’s music was a great asset, and this is also evident in the wonderful results he gets from the Norkõpping Symphony Orchestra on a new disc of Pickard’s orchestral music (BIC CD 1578).

The CD opens with The Flight of Icarus (1990), premiered in Cardiff in January 1991; it gained wider currency when played at the Proms five years later, helping to establish Pickard’s reputation. It takes the form of a 20-minute tone poem conceived in one unbroken arc, but divisible into three distinct sections. Whilst not strictly programmatic, the work’s narrative structure is influenced by the Greek myth of Icarus, with reference to the disasters of early space exploration; the underlying message behind the piece is the catastrophe that human endeavour generates. A ceaseless rhythmic drive creates considerable energy, and this is coupled with a ravishing array of orchestral colours and a profusion of striking ideas. The large forces are deployed with skill and imagination, with key roles for tuba and timpani, who together introduce an important motto theme right at the start of the work. Thick sonorities of multi-layered density as catastrophe strikes are offset by gentle, translucent textures evoking the sea and graceful, soaring episodes capturing the feeling of flight. In a gripping performance such as the one captured on this disc, it is easy to see why this dramatic, superbly-scored piece remains the composer’s most celebrated and often played work for orchestra.

The Spindle of Necessity (1998), based on Plato’s description of the workings of the universe and his model of the afterlife, is a one-movement concerto for trombone accompanied by strings and percussion, also lasting about 20 minutes. It’s a calm, reflective work in which the solo lines domi¬nate, though often supported by richly divided, inventively deployed strings studded with delicate percussion. The opening and closing sections have something of the feel of a soliloquy for the soloist and Christian Lindberg rises to the challenge with both technical prowess and eloquent lyricism.

The CD saves the best until last with Channel Firing (1993), dedicated to the memory of Pickard’s composition teacher, William Matthias, who commissioned it for the 1993 North Wales Music Festival. It was inspired by a Thomas Hardy poem, written just before the Great War, set in a churchyard on the south coast of England at night as gunfire causes the dead to rise up, thinking it is the last judgement. (The poem itself was famously set by Gerald Finzi.) Like The Flight of Icarus, this symphonic poem is connected with the sea, but the tone is infinitely darker, with the character of a solemn, processional, whose progress is brutally disrupted in the faster cen¬tral section. A fateful chord taken from Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung permeates the work. Though not as technically virtuosic as The Flight of Icarus, Channel Firing is more diverse in character, more rigorous in its thematic development and more emotionally engaging. It is one of Pickard’s most English-sounding scores: the brass writing in the central skirmishes is not far removed from that of Havergal Brian and the deeply affecting aftermath recalls the visionary post-nuclear laments of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth and Ninth Symphonies: these associations, together with a scrupulous working-out of the material, prompts the feeling that Channel Firing is less a tone poem and more a one-movement symphony, and a particularly fine example.

Brabbins and his Swedish players make the best possible case for these works, with dynamic but polished performances in splendid sound from BIS. It is good news that a further Pickard disc is planned from the same sources, featuring the first in his seascape trilogy, Sea Change (1989), the Piano Concerto of 2000 and a new orchestral piece to be premiered in September 2009. It is to be hoped recordings of his fiercely compelling Second and Third symphonies will follow in due course.

Paul Conway