John Pickard: Chamber Music CD

John Pickard: Chamber Music (Toccata Classics – TOCC0150)

The six pieces recorded on this disc span twenty years of composing, from the Piano Trio of 1990 to Snowbound, written in 2010. The retrospective dimension is perhaps emphasised by the pieces’ presentation in chronological order, though that decision was made on purely musical grounds – they just happen to create the most effective balance when heard in this order. The disc begins and ends with trios; in between come three duos and one solo piece.

Actively pursuing an individual ‘style’ has never interested me, as it has always seemed the most superficial aspect of composing. Style is like handwriting: it evolves naturally as a reflection of one’s personality and tastes; although it may go a long way towards asserting identity, it is usually of less importance than the content and substance of what one is actually writing. Far more exciting and interesting to me is the challenge of responding to the potential of certain instrumental combinations or to the musical character of specific performers; these considerations, rather than self-reflection, are far more likely to determine the nature of the material and the ‘style’ of a piece. Nevertheless, looking back on these works, I can discern the evolution of a number of traits over the years. Some characteristics have inevitably changed and some have remained consistent, but I think the earlier pieces are just as recognisably ‘me’ as the more recent ones.

So, what has changed and what has remained consistent? Certainly, a continuing re-engagement with traditional large-scale abstract forms is evident in the Piano Trio, Chaconne (1998) and the Violin Sonata (2004). Moreover, all the pieces on the disc are built on a highly extended approach to tonality. For me, tonality is not an article of faith (I am quite capable of writing music with no underlying tonal centre), but it is an enormously effective way of giving coherence to large spans of music. Much of my music tends not so much to be ‘in’ a key as constantly gravitating towards or away from different pitch-centres. Like any gravitational force, the closer one moves towards a certain centre, the more pervasive its effect (the serene F sharp major ending of the Violin Sonata [10] stands at one extreme on this disc; the restless harmonic contortions of Insomnia [4] perhaps at the other). This approach offers me harmonic flexibility and, I believe, considerable emotional range. What has perhaps changed is how that emotion is directed, the earlier pieces perhaps being more austere in expression and the more recent ones often tending towards greater spontaneity.

The two decades in which these pieces were written also saw the composition of four string quartets – essential works in terms of developing my general approach to writing for chamber forces. In fact three of the pieces recorded here were written as a direct result of working on my quartets with specific performers. I enjoy working with individual artists and always try whenever possible to get to know them before I write for them – not only their playing or singing, but something of their personalities, too. One has a better chance of writing a successful piece if one is in tune, so to speak, with the performer for whom one is writing. One of the most rewarding collaborations I have experienced was with the Sorrel Quartet, with whom I worked quite extensively for almost ten years. For them I composed my Fourth String Quartet, which they subsequently recorded with the Second and Third.1 I wrote three of the works on this disc for individual members of the Quartet.

Piano Trio
This work was composed during 1990, to a commission from the North Wales Music Festival and funded by the Arts Council of Wales. The first performance was given in St Asaph Cathedral, on 27 September 1990 by the Johannes Trio.

As a student I heard a good deal of music for piano trio and became well aware of the pitfalls of a medium where it is all too easy for the piano to overbalance the two string-players. It is, of course, partly an issue of individual musicianship among performers, but there is no doubt that overloaded piano textures do not help. Consequently, I took care to ensure that the piano part in this work was not weighed down with swathes of ornamentation, a consideration that went on to affect the rest of the instrumental writing, which avoids any unnecessary detail. Formally, too, the piece is clear and concise; a continuous three-in-one structure, with a slow movement at the centre, framed by fast movements, with the second functioning as a kind of recapitulation.

Of the three instruments in a piano trio, it is the cello that is most at risk of being overwhelmed, and so I took a hint from Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, where he tends to begin many of the sections with the solo cello as a way of focussing the listener’s attention on that instrument. Similarly, in this piece the cello often leads the way – indeed, it opens the entire piece with a rushing unaccompanied scale [1] followed by a rocking minor third. Only then does the violin enter (with an octave leap) and, finally, the piano. The opening section is continually fast and comes in three waves of activity, punctuated by periods of respite. At the section’s climax, the music plunges into the central slow section [2], which is initially disguised, the tempo having dropped to exactly half speed while the rhythmic energy continues unabated. Eventually, the music subsides into a more reflective span, from which the final section emerges [3] and with it a return to the fast tempo of the opening. The mood is scherzo-like, but a gradual build-up of energy and the return of material from the opening provokes a climactic passage of considerable vehemence. But at its height the music unexpectedly falters (here, once again, the cello leads the way) and, despite several attempts to restart, the energy that has been built up dissipates. At the close, though the tempo is still fast, the harmonic rhythm has slowed to that of the central section. The cello attempts to restart the piece, but the impetus has been lost and two large fermatas bring the piece to a close.

The Piano Trio is dedicated to Martin Anderson, founder of Toccata Classics and, more importantly, friend for over thirty years now.

Insomnia for Violin and Piano
In 1997 I was asked by the violinist Oliver Lewis to write him a piece. The result was Insomnia [4], a very different kind of piece from the Piano Trio. In the intervening seven years, I had written much music, including three string quartets and three large-scale orchestral pieces (one of them my Third Symphony). The orchestral works, with their increased emphasis on instrumental colour, left their mark on this piece, which is more fantastical and overtly virtuosic than the Trio.

The title came while I was in the middle of writing the work. It seemed to sum up the restless quality of the music, the way it tends to alight on tiny details and develop them obsessively, in the same way that a sleepless night often finds the mind picking up a stray thought and worrying at it until it is inflated to massive dimensions.

The piece alternates two types of music at two distinct, but related, speeds. The first is fairly slow and free; the second faster and more rhythmic. These pairs are heard three times, with the slow music tending to dominate to begin with and the fast music appearing more as an interruption. With the third cycle, the functions are reversed: the slow music acts more as an introduction to a much-extended fast section, which eventually reaches a climactic statement, before closing with a reference to the very opening.

Insomnia was premiered by Oliver Lewis and the pianist Andrew Zollinsky on 3 March 1998 in St David’s Hall, Cardiff.

Chaconne for Solo Viola
The Chaconne [5] was composed in 1998 for Vicki Wardman, who gave the first performance on 8 February 1999 at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. It is one of a number of my works from around that time (including the Fourth Quartet and the Piano Concerto) exploring structures derived from the Baroque. In this case, the great Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo Violin Partita inevitably offered a formidable and inspiring example. The piece has ten sections, each tracing the same harmonic journey and rising to an intense climax in the ninth section. In 2010, in anticipation of a performance at the Colston Hall in Bristol, I thoroughly revised the piece, removing the original ending and replacing it with an elegiac final section in which the music rises higher and higher until eventually disappearing into the ether. The instrument on which the Chaconne is played in this recording once belonged to Gustav Holst.

Valedictions for Cello and Piano
This work was composed during the winter of 1999–2000 for the cellist Helen Thatcher, who gave the first performance on 19 April 2000 at Kendal Arts Centre, with the pianist Darius Battiwalla.
The title refers to two poems by the metaphysical poet John Donne, both concerned with aspects of parting and farewell. I originally wanted to set them for voice, but this approach never seemed to work and instead the settings developed into two instrumental paraphrases, which follow the meaning of the original texts in a very free way.

The first, ‘A Valediction of Weeping’ [6], centres on the idea of parting lovers, each carrying the image of the other reflected in their tears. The second, ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ [7], concerns one of the lovers going on a journey. The central metaphor is of a map and a pair of dividers with one pointer remaining fixed but leaning towards the other pointer which moves on a circular journey, ending where it began.

The work, which is lyrical throughout, is generally suffused with a feeling of farewell and loss, not least reflecting the period of its composition – on the cusp of the twentieth and 21st centuries.

Sonata for Violin and Piano
This Sonata was composed between June and August 2004. It was commissioned by the Carr-Gregory Trust and is dedicated to Linda and Russ Carr and to Gina McCormack who, with the pianist Nigel Clayton, premièred the piece at St George’s, Bristol, on 14 November 2004.

The work has two contrasting movements, but the first is essentially two movements in one: a turbulent opening Allegro [8] and a short, extremely fast (and ferociously difficult), scherzo, Presto possibile [9], based on the same material as the previous section. The Adagio second movement [10] is slow and lyrical and is a further transformation of music heard earlier. It begins and ends calmly and simply, rising to an impassioned climax in the middle.

The entire piece explores the tension created by the interplay of two mutually exclusive harmonic systems: one built on a scale of alternating tones and semitones, the other on an interlocking cycle of perfect fifths. The use of fifths, particularly those to which the violin is tuned, almost inevitably brings to mind Berg’s famous use of the open strings in his Violin Concerto. While gratefully acknowledging the influence of that masterpiece, I hope that my own work explores some alternative implications of that distinctive sonority.

Snowbound for Bass Clarinet, Cello and Piano
Snowbound [11] was composed for the new-music ensemble Gemini, which gave the first performance at the University of Bristol on 9 February 2011, with Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet), Sophie Harris (cello) and Huw Watkins (piano). The combination was a hugely attractive one for me. I have always liked low instrumental sonorities and, having recently composed a work called Tenebrae, exploring the darkest colours of the orchestra, this piece offered the opportunity to revisit some of the material from that work and to take it in a different direction. In some respects (and quite coincidentally), Snowbound is almost a mirror image of the Piano Trio. It reverses the formal model of that piece (this one is slow-fast-slow) and, in terms of sonority, it inverts it. The cello writing often lies above the bass clarinet (which is nonetheless sometimes pushed to the extremes of its upper register) and where the earlier Trio treated the piano with considerable clarity, here the instrument is often used to blur the sonorities of the other two instruments. Snowbound was composed in the space of a single week at Christmas, 2010, during a period of unusually heavy snowfall – at least, by British standards – when, for a time, it was impossible for me to get much further than the front garden. The piece evokes a landscape, suddenly transformed by ice and snow into a new and unexpected world, where familiar landmarks have been obscured and clear outlines and boundaries dissolved. It is dedicated to my friend Cecilia Wee.

© John Pickard, 2012

1 On Dutton Epoch CDLX 7117, released in 2002.