Orion and The Borders of Sleep

Reviews of “Orion” and “The Borders of Sleep”, performed at the 2004 Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts


John Pickard is a man committed to looking at the great scheme of things, posting bad reviews as well as good on his website. His latest composition, a Presteigne Festival commission, is a one-star piece only in the sense that, astronomically speaking, its subject is Orion the most splendid constellation.

The three-movement work for trumpet and organ is partly programmatic: Nebula presents disparate strands, their gradual coalescence creating rising tension out of which a dramatic trumpet statement emblazons the air. In Alnitak, a short hunting scene for the mythological Orion is framed by lyrical sections, which Pickard shrewdly sets for flugelhorn, giving a richly burnished sound in the context of St Andrew’s Church. Betelgeuse (part of Orion’s belt) depicts that star’s eventual fate “dispersal into the depths of space” with paroxyms of virtuoso trumpet reaching a climax but, in response to fading chord clusters in the organ, then becoming more and more faint. Having soloist Alison Balsom remove to the Chapel for these dying moments risked being stagey, especially since organist Jonathan Scott was in full view, but luckily it created a spatial effect which made a musical point.

Orion did not match the impact of Pickard’s song cycle The Borders of Sleep, sung the previous day by baritone Damian Thantrey with pianist Iwan Llewelyn-Jones. The cycle, a setting of nine poems by Edward Thomas deals with death, its dark and often raw emotion vividly expressed and most sensitively realised here.

Rian Evans
The Guardian
September 2, 2004


[Damian] Thantrey’s swooning theatricality did little to help along John Pickard’s Edward Thomas song-cycle The Borders of Sleep. Uniformly lugubrious tempi in these nine settings steal the thunder from what really is a beautifully inward song, the penultimate The Sorrow of True Love. Iwan Llewelyn-Jones etched well Pickard’s telling piano gestures.

A more engaging aspect of Pickard was revealed in Monday evening’s world premiere of his Presteigne Festival commission Orion for trumpet and organ. Reflecting the composer’s own astronomical interests, it begins with cosmic wisps of material and ends with the trumpeter disappearing from our view.

The sensational Alison Balsom was the stunningly accurate trumpeter, and Jonathan Scott was equally outstanding in Pickard’s frequently Messiaen-like organ writing. And outside the stars were shining undimmed by light-pollution in this enchanting landscape.

Christopher Morley
The Birmingham Post
September 1, 2004