John Pickard Mass in Troubled Times BBC Singers, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) BIS 2651 SACD
This disc is without doubt one of the best contemporary music recordings that I’ve reviewed for a long time. Although perhaps best known for his symphonies and larger-scale works, John Pickard here presents a collection of his smaller-scale choral and organ pieces, which show absolute sincerity and mastery of composition. The disc opens with the Three Latin Motets, which set the tone at once, being both serenely beautiful and superbly sung by the BBC Singers. It also becomes immediately apparent that the sound is just right; the venue of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead is perfect for this repertoire, pleasingly but not overly resonant. World premiere recordings of the radiant O magnum mysterium and Orion for trumpet and organ follow, the latter a work depicting the eponymous constellation, on which the extremely well-written booklet notes (by Pickard himself) are particularly fascinating and illuminating. The work is both enjoyable and descriptive. I especially loved the exciting third movement Betelgeuse, with its sense of weight and gravity, and the ending with the trumpet off-stage, the red giant “dispersing into the infinite depths of space.” Ave Maris Stella is followed by the hugely dramatic Ozymandias (a setting of the Shelley poem), a work that fully evokes the disastrous consequences of grasping too much power.
Tesserae, the penultimate piece, for solo organ, is excellently played by David Goode (for whom it was written), and the disc concludes with the title work Mass in Troubled Times, written in 2018 at a time of global uncertainty. Pickard has here collaborated with writer Gavin D’Costa to combine standard Christian texts and English poetry with Middle Eastern sources, including the Qur’an and Syrian Orthodox church liturgy. Pickard skillfully blends these into a work of beauty, compassion, terror, praise, and anguish, resulting in an incredibly moving piece. The disc’s high standards apply not just to the music and the music-making but to the whole production; this is a flawless recording and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Eric Coates Orchestral Works Vol. 3 BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson (conductor) CHAN 20164
This is the third volume in Chandos’s Eric Coates series with John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic, and it opens in fabulously uplifting style with Television March. Commissioned to open the BBC’s resumption of service after the Second World War, this jaunty little march preceded a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a dance recital by Margot Fonteyn, a Bernard Shaw play, and a performance from Mantovani and his orchestra. The suite The Three Men of 1935 depicts in its three movements the Countryman, the Townsman, and the Seaman: the Countryman is brisk and busy, the Townsman is urbane and romantic, and the Seaman is unmistakably identified by the shanty When Johnnie Comes Down to Hilo, which combines to glorious effect with Three Blind Mice. This led, as the programme note tells us, to denials by the Royal and Merchant Navies that there were any mice on their ships “for the very reason that no rat would ever put up with their presence”!
The Cinderella Phantasy, commissioned by the Eastbourne Festival in 1929, is a brilliant piece of story-telling in music and is followed by a fine rendition of arguably Coates’s best-known work, The Dam Busters March. The tender romance Last Love precedes the Concert Valse Sweet Seventeen, Coates’s last completed waltz, written in 1954 but recalling his first date with his wife (to whom the piece is dedicated), the day before her seventeenth birthday. The disc ends with the Three Elizabeths Suite, portraying Elizabeth I, the late Queen Mother, and Princess Elizabeth. The opening movement will be familiar to listeners as the title music to The Forsyte Saga, whereas the dreamily romantic second movement inhabits the same sound-world as By the Sleepy Lagoon, and the last movement is sprightly and vivacious with a noble and ceremonial conclusion: perfectly fitting for our late Queen. The whole disc is superbly presented, with excellent, entertaining, and informative notes, and a gorgeous and most appropriate cover image of a Pullman coach from a 1927 travel advertisement.--Em Marshall-Luck