It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced.
The piece found itself in curious company, preceded by a pair of works that, although by no means as ferocious, were in their own ways just as animalistic. That’s not an adjective one tends to hear applied to Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, but ever since i was first subjected to the piece as an unsuspecting sixth-former, it’s always seemed entirely appropriate. Elgar’s cello cuts one of the most pathetic protagonists in the entirety of music; it whines like a bitch, squeals like a pig, bleats like a forlorn little lamb. People loftily proclaim all this to be ‘valedictory’, but this is an animal that deserves — needs — to be put out of its misery post-haste. But no, the orchestra unthinkingly, deplorably, allows it to ramble on incessantly for half an hour, offering superficially sombre utterances of sympathetic regret. After almost a century of farcical, fawning, flattering, fulsome, false adulation, it’s high time the Cello Concerto was called out for the ugly, moping piece of dilapidated dirge-tripe that it is. Soloist Alban Gerhardt presumably did his best to find some humanity in it, but it was hard to tell among the precarious intonation and lack of melodic connectivity emerging from his instrument (not exclusive to Elgar, they also blighted his encore). Before this abject travesty had come William Walton‘s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a work causing one to reflect that, prior to the emergence (and dominance) of Benjamin Britten, Walton sounds like the only British composer who actually seemed to enjoy himself. The tales of being sent tapes of African music for “inspiration” are at best a conceit; the piece is seven minutes of complete and utter Walton, a triumph of joy, vivid and jarring colouration and melodic and structural misdirection, all delayed resolutions, false cadences and madcap maracas. An unbelievably wonderful bestial romp, delivered to perfection by the BBC NOW with conductor Martyn Brabbins looking as though he might start dancing at any moment.
But then the storms came and swallowed everything up. First with bullish, metric, military precision, strings and then brass letting fire a moto perpetuo of quantised gunfire. Somewhere within these opening salvos of Pickard’s Fifth Symphony was the possibility of melody; somewhere else, not necessarily anything approximating harmony at this stage, but certainly the suggestion of clubbing together into packs to make something vertically. The symphony stews for a while, stays gestural, brutish, even rude; brass and percussion report and tattoo, woodwind scramble into the stratosphere as though their lives depended on it, and it all gets a bit Anders Hillborg (no bad thing) in an episode distinctly redolent of the Swedish composer’s Liquid Marble. Pickard spoke beforehand of the sense of balance that he regards as quintessential to the notion of ‘symphony’, where “everything is working equally, and nothing is left out in order to privilege something else”, and this clearly extends to a kind of instrumental egalitarianism, with every section having something specific and important to contribute to the uproarious argument. There’s also behavioural balance at play too, for the Fifth Symphony is more, much more, than just turbulence and pandemonium, entering into passages of, in this environment, shockingly radiant beauty, invariably emanating from the strings. These develop and set up a complex and highly engaging friction, in which rival tempos and modes of expression interject and dovetail each other. On the one hand, it’s not difficult music to follow – Pickard clearly sets out the tone and behavioural characteristics of his music elements early on – yet for all that there’s an organicism, a spontaneity that makes everything still to come genuinely unexpected and thereby establishes a profound and omnipresent tension (without such clarity of elements, there could be no tension, one’s expectations rendered irrelevant).
The three sets of timpani looming from the back of the stage dominate the centre of the work, initially banging out the surface of an undulating contour, later converting this into a fully-fledged melodic line (21st century Berlioz!) beneath string chords practically crackling with electricity, as though poised to unleash a bolt of lightning. From the cellos, rising and rising, a massive melody breaks out, accumulating more and more instruments around it, gradually marshalling the symphony from the convoluted, multi-layered entity that by now it had become back towards a wholesale reunification, and an extended, increasingly rhythmic climax. Pickard abruptly reduces everything almost to nothing, woodwind lines gently ululating over semi-static strings and low bass pizzicati—but, just as quickly, the orchestra’s dial is cranked back up to max for a hefty aftershock of the earlier climax, ushering in elements of recapitulation that don’t so much tie up loose ends as fray them. Indeed, it attains a level of violence beyond anything that has gone before, an all-enveloping maelstrom of sallies and surges that push the material, the orchestra and possibly the audience close to breaking point. In the wake of ongoing shrieks from the winds, Pickard escorts his Fifth Symphony down into postdiluvian darkness, peppered with soft poundings from the twelve timpani, small, apocalyptic bruises on our enervated ears, minds and souls.
John Pickard’s music sits uncomfortably within the world of new music: not sufficiently radical to be regarded as truly avant-garde; way too radical to be regarded as remotely mainstream. Maybe that’s the best possible place to be, in a kind of non-specific no man’s land, able to move freely around that continuum as desired. Either way, it’s unfortunate and wrong that his name and his work isn’t more widely known; the breadth of Pickard’s imagination, particularly when brought to bear on large forms such as this, is almost unparalleled within the UK (his massive fourth symphony, the Gaia-Symphony, is, dare i say it, even more impressive), as is his exquisitely nuanced approach to orchestration. For all its complexities and equivocalities and difficulties, his music is never less than a treat, an absolute feast for the ears.
John Pickard – Symphony No. 5 (World Première)
However, the symphony does not move forward in a traditional manner. In the words of the composer: ‘it alternates fast music and slow music throughout and, to begin with, the fast sections gradually get shorter and the slow ones gradually get longer. Towards the centre, the longest span of slow music is reached, after which the slow sections begin to get shorter and the fast sections get longer. Eventually, the music returns to the speed and the material of the opening section.
‘This basic outline conceals and number of subtleties and complexities. For one thing, the alternating speeds vary; in other words, there are several fast speeds and several slow speeds, though all are metrically related in some way. Furthermore, the relationship between the speeds is often deliberately made ambiguous by blurring the relationship between them. Consequently, fast and slow music sometimes appear to be combined so that it is not always clear whether the music is actually at a fast or a slow tempo.’
Along with these alternating speeds come dramatic contrasts of material: leaping athletic woodwind against delicate strings, slow sustained appassionato melodic lines rising up through the strings, fast quietly moving passages, light and strong as silk, and huge climaxes underpinned by the three timpani. And it is the timpani that continue to dominate throughout, exchanging material between them, engaging in dramatic antiphonal effects, exploiting their melodic potential in the central slow section and, finally, bringing the work to its quiet, still conclusion.
© Peter Reynolds