Gaia Symphony – British Bandsman

Gaia Symphony

Buy As You View Band

Conductor: Dr. Robert Childs
Doyen CD 188

The best way to listen to works like John Pickard’s epic Gaia Symphony is to actually be there during a live performance. The next best thing is to own a fine digital recording. I have experienced the former (at this year’s Cheltenham Festival) and now I am able to enjoy the latter.

The first three movements of this mighty work, together with the percussion interludes, were recorded in February this year, whilst the final movement (Men of Stone) is taken from a recording made in 2001 and licensed from Kirklees Music. Despite the difference in the recording venues and the length of time between the recording of movements one, two and three and this strong finale, the engineers have matched the recorded sound so that the listener is not aware of any difference in quality.

Gaia is, of course, something of a ‘sonic spectacular’ (to borrow a phrase from the early days of stereo) and a showpiece for digital recording. Special effects like the thunder sheet, ‘wobble-board’ and slapsticks (depicting burning twigs in the Wildfire movement) come off splendidly, being captured with startling fidelity.

For those yet to make the acquaintance of John Pickard’s Gaia Symphony, the work, considered the longest single work ever written for a brass band (it comes in at 62 minutes on this recording), is in four movements, connected by intermezzi (or ‘Windows’ as the composer calls them) for the percussion section, designed to give, in performance, a chance for the brass players to rest their lips, but also providing a textural contrast for the listener. The colourful work concerns the four elements of water, fire, air and earth and the four movements are entitled Tsunami (evoking the unstoppable force of a tidal wave, all too well demonstrated in the recent past), Wildfire (an account of a double forest fire was the inspiration for this), Aurora – a beautiful movement evoking the Northern Lights (the composer is an astronomer) and Men of Stone (a four -part evocation of various neolithic circles around the British Isles).

So, what of the recorded performance? As in Cheltenham, the playing is of the highest order, with special laurels going to the soprano playing of Steve Barnsley, the solo cornet playing of lain Williams, the flügel playing of Joanne Dean, the lovely solo horn of Owen Farr, the impressive Eb bass of John Prosser and David Childs, as ever on superb form in the euphonium solos (although Nigel John is heard in the last movement). The stentorian opening commands immediate attention with its menacing low brass and pulsing percussion. The jagged rhythmic phrases are spot on for accuracy and the balance sounds ideal and the percussion onslaughts are properly terrifying. Not that this is an exclusively noisy work by any means. There is much consonance in Dr. Pickard’s writing and many lyrical moments of which Robert Childs makes much throughout the course of the symphony. The famous burnished ‘BAYV sound’ is present throughout, despite moments which could have tempted a lesser band to blast.

The percussion ‘windows’ are splendidly handled, the extended team of Alun Horgan, Dave Danford, David Mitchell, Huw Williams and Adam Davies acquitting themselves with great distinction (with Tom Clare, Jack Egglestone and Celi Evans substituting in Men of Stone). Special mention must be made, however, of the musical timpani playing of David Griffiths (would that all brass band timpanists made a sound like this!).

The booklet is attractively presented with colour pictures of fire, water, earth and the Aurora Borealis, and contains a full list of band personnel and biographies of Drs Pickard and Childs together with comprehensive analytical notes on the symphony by the composer.

John Pickard’s Gaia Symphony has already attained classic status in the canon of brass band literature and this first complete recording does the work proud. The overriding impression is not only of a cogent modern work accessible to anyone familiar with ‘serious’ music of the last 50 years, but of a performance of great sincerity and commitment. Whatever recordings are issued during the rest of 2005, this one currently has my vote for ‘CD of the year’. Just warn the neighbours when you are about to play it, some of the climaxes are positively seismic!

Rodney Newton