Saturday, 18 October 2014

A new release from BIS shows that, with such colours and textures and sheer brilliance of writing, John Pickard’s Gaia Symphony for brass band and percussion is a tremendous achievement

John Pickard (b.1963) began composing at an early age going on to read for a B.Mus. degree at the University of Wales, Bangor, where his composition teacher was William Mathias. He later studied with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands on a Dutch Ministry of Culture Scholarship. He is currently Professor of Composition and Applied Musicology at the University of Bristol.

Pickard’s compositions to date include choral, orchestral, chamber, instrumental, vocal works as well as a number of works for brass, in particular the two works for brass band featured on a new release from BIS Records , Eden and Symphony No.4 ‘Gaia Symphony’.

BIS - 2061

Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag brass and percussion ensemble are based in Lindås, Norway. They are probably the best known brass band in Norway having won the Norwegian Brass Band Championships fifteen times. Here they are directed on this disc by the Swedish conductor, Andreas Hanson. Hanson is one of Scandinavia’s most established conductors having conducted all of the finest Swedish orchestras such as Kungliga Filharmoniska Orkestern in Stockholm, Sveriges Radio Symfoniorkester, Malmö Symfonirorkester as well as conducting opera and ballet at, among others, Kungliga Operan in Stockholm. He has been engaged as a guest conductor in Russia, Great Britain, Poland and Lithuania. In 2000 he made his debut in London at a Proms-concert.

In 2005 John Pickard was commissioned to compose the test piece for the finals of the 2005 National Brass Band Championship, held at the Royal Albert Hall, London. This piece, Eden for brass band (2005), has since been performed all over the world and is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest works written for brass band. Pickard tells us in his excellent booklet note that the work is prefaced by the final lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is in three linked sections, the first representing Adam, Eve and the serpent; the second, an interpretation of the Eden story as a modern metaphor for the havoc inflicted on the world and the third a lament.

The work opens with the instruments of Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag slowly joining against the tinkle of a bell, giving very much the feel of dawn.  Rich deep lower brass add a richness as the music gently moves forward in short surges. Pickard’s use of his instruments is skilfully done, beautifully orchestrated. The music moves from rich sounds to passages of great luminosity. Soon there are courser, rasping, agitated, sounds with a trombone leading the ensemble. Drums beat out as the music becomes increasingly dramatic with further percussion joining as the music drives forward, full of energy. Later a trombone takes on a jazzy feel as the music is driven along, achieving a tremendous pitch with playing of supreme virtuosity. Eventually a tolling bell introduces a slow section full of regret and sorrow. The rich, lower brass enter as the music seems to gain a reflective air before building again in dynamics as the coda is reached, surely giving a sign of hope. The work concludes on a settled final loud flourish.

This is a beautifully structured piece, full of fine orchestration and colourful ideas.

The sixty five minute Symphony No.4, ‘Gaia Symphony’ for brass band and percussion (1991-2003), was first heard in its complete version at the 2005 Cheltenham Music Festival. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the earth. Wildfire and Men of Stone were the result of earlier individual commissions. Tsunami and Aurora followed, later connected by three short movements entitled Windows to form the symphony. The Windows are openings in the continuous brass sonorities to offer a glimpse of another sound world built of percussion.

Tsunami has a forceful opening followed by a steady beating rhythm from the timpani over which the band slowly build a theme. Soon a more animated section arrives with the music dancing around against percussion, full of syncopated, dramatic music. The music quietens momentarily but soon picks up to a violent forward thrusting pace before falling to a longer sustained hushed section. Cymbals appear to give the sound of water as individual instruments quietly join with a stillness and tension as a drum beats quietly. Eventually the drum beat speeds up and becomes more dominant as the music regains its dynamic, violent nature, going through a number of surges, growing in strength to lead into Window 1 (Water – Fire) where drums and percussion hammer out a primeval rhythm that shows the ensemble’s percussion section to be first rate.

We are led straight into Wildfire where staccato brass outbursts are interspersed by longer held passages. A side drum drives the music forward with brass outbursts before more of a forward momentum is gained with some extremely fine playing from this band. Soon a quieter, slower section arrives but the music slowly builds again with increased rhythm and dynamics and some particularly fine orchestration.  There are quieter moments, full of increasing tension, as the music pushes forward to the colossal coda that ends with strange tapping sounds from the percussion as we are led into Window 2 (Fire – Air) where repeated tapping leads to the entry of drums that take over in a faster rhythm before a variety of percussion instruments have their say, bringing a variety of textures. Eventually the music falls to a tolling bell with tinkling bells adding to the texture as we are led into the next movement.

Aurora brings a peaceful passage with mellow brass as higher instruments emerge from the background bringing a sense of light. There is a lovely rising and falling passage and some gloriously written hushed passages, beautifully played. Timpani then point up a rhythm, leading the ensemble to a faster pace and rising to a series of climaxes, finely pointed up by surges of percussion. Eventually the music falls with a return of the mellow brass of the opening, becoming quieter in the magical coda and leading into Window 3 (Air – Earth) where a drum taps a short motif before a bell chimes and a vibraphone subtly joins. The music rises in dynamics a little in this strangest and most inventive of sections.

The final movement, Men of Stone is in four linked sections. It rises quickly to an outburst in the opening of Avebury (Autumn, morning) before a lone cornet plays a lovely melody. Soon there is another surge from the full ensemble before building, with lovely little brass decorations, to the final climax and speeding into Castlerigg (Winter, afternoon) a rhythmic, dynamic section with violent drums, full of fierce energy that falls, falteringly to Barclodiad y Gawres (Spring, evening) a lovely section, a complete contrast to Castlerigg with some glorious moments, full of exquisite colours and textures as a spring evening is depicted. The music rises in passion before quietly leading into a rhythmic drumming passage, with snarling brass, as Stonehenge (Summer, night/dawn) appears, full of primeval violence. The music falls with a sense of menace still remaining before an outburst followed by surges of brass lead to the dynamic coda.

This symphony is a tremendous achievement both by composer and the band. At times one forgets that one is listening to a brass band such are the colours and textures and sheer brilliance of Pickard’s writing.

As for the performances, they are absolutely first rate. To call this band amateur seems inappropriate such are their skills. The recording is well up to BIS’ high standards, allowing every little detail and texture to emerge. There are informative booklet notes from the composer. By including the related work, Eden, BIS have given us a very generous 81 minute disc.

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