John Pickard (b. 1963)
Three Latin Motets (1983-1987)
O magnum mysterium (2015)
Orion – trumpet and organ (2004)
Ave maris stella (1992)
Ozymandias (1983)
Tesserae – organ (2009)
Mass in Troubled Times (2018)
Chloë Abbott (trumpet, flugelhorn), David Goode (organ), BBC Singers / Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2022, Parish Church, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, UK
BIS BIS-2651 SACD [74]

John Pickard wrote the liner notes for this disc; I will quote from them, with thanks. He says  that, with his focus on orchestral and chamber works, choral music has been “a more sporadic affair”. The earliest works here are from his time in Bangor as a pupil of the late William Mathias. The Three Latin Motets, composed in 1983 (O nata lux), 1985 (Ubi caritas et amor) and 1987 (Te lucis ante terminum), may be performed individually or together. The first was one of the weekly exercises set by Mathias; the music is firmly steeped in the 20th-century church music tradition upheld by Mathias and others (Kenneth Leighton comes to mind). The second – beautifully set for women’s voices only – and the third are much in the same vein, well written and eminently singable.

Pickard regards the setting of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias as his Opus 1. It is conceived as a big crescendo from the opening, largely based on monotonous chanting which slowly moves towards the mighty, forcefully assertive climax at the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”. The nineteen-years-old composer must have been justly proud of this truly thrilling statement.

O magnum mysterium was written for a Christmas carol concert at the University of Bristol, where Pickard teaches and where he conducts the University Chorus. This is as beautiful a piece as one might wish. So is Ave maris stella, which clearly reveals more elaborate textures, up to nine-part writing. It creates rich sonorities “culminating in a triumphant E flat major chord, spread across three and a half octaves”.

The pièce de résistance is the Mass in Troubled Times composed for the BBC Singers, who gave the first performance. Pickard says that the title refers to Haydn’s Missa in angustiis also known as the Nelson Mass: “The present work may be seen as a modern response to Haydn’s masterpiece, written against a background of even global uncertainty.” The title also reminds me of the late Thomas Wilson’s Missa pro mundo conturbato (Mass for a troubled world) from 1970, scored for chamber choir, percussion, harp and strings. Well, I am afraid that things are not likely to change drastically for the better.

Pickard’s Mass is based on a text devised by theologian and writer Gavin D’Costa. It uses parts from the Ordinary Mass: “only seventeen lines of text are from the Mass itself”. The composer writes: “These lines are counterpointed with original poems unfolding a fictional narrative of a refugee father and daughter, fleeing their war-torn country by sea.” The languages are Turkish (in the Introitus), Arabic and Syriac (in the Kyrie), and Arabic (in the Credo and the Sanctus). The texts are interspersed with well-known quotations. “April is the cruellest month” (from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) appears three times in the Kyrie. The Gloria has “Still falls the Rain” (the title of Dame Edith Sitwell’s poem) as a refrain. The Credo quotes the opening line from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, “the sea is calm tonight”. The Agnus Dei appropriately opens with “Little Lamb who made thee?” (from William Blake’s The Lamb).

This variety of literary sources results in an equally varied musical response. The English texts are set to be easily understood. The Middle Eastern texts “are set in a manner that does not seek to conceal their differences from the Western texts”, so that the texts in Arabic and Syriac are sung in a clearly monodic style. One might dig deeper into the rather complex literary network but that would exceed the limits of this review. And yet, Pickard managed to maintain a strongly argued coherence throughout this complex work. It is his deeply sincere and strongly felt statement. The writing for voices, equally exacting, calls for complete dedication, and for impeccable technique and musicality. The BBC Singers rise to the challenge, as one might expect.

This “ear-opening” release also includes two substantial instrumental pieces. Orion for trumpet doubling flugelhorn and organ was commissioned by the 2004 Presteigne Festival. Trumpeter Alison Balsom and organist Jonathan Scott gave the first performance. The piece is in three movements. In Nebula various elements emerge from an amorphous, ambiguous opening before coalescing into an assertive, dramatic statement. Alnitak (the easternmost star in Orion’s belt) is somewhat more developed. The lyrical outer sections are dominated by the rich sound of the flugelhorn, whereas the more animated central section played by the trumpet is a hunting scene representing Orion as “the Mighty Hunter”. Betelgeuse alludes to the final stages of the star that will end up as a ring (“a planetary nebula” in Pickard’s words). So, after a series of dramatic, exacting cadenzas and a hair-raising dance, the trumpeter moves offstage to play from a progressively greater distance. (An aside: the front cover image represents the Sword of Orion.)

Tesserae was written for organist David Goode, who gave the first performance in Oxford. A tessera is a piece of ceramic or a tile in a mosaic. Fittingly, the work is conceived as a mosaic of sorts. It is made of fragments repeated and juxtaposed as in a mosaic but no one is exactly the same; that implies tiny variations throughout the work. As the music proceeds, fragments tend to attract each other so as to make clearly identifiable images. It also moves from a somewhat slower, tentative beginning towards a more energetic closing section. Orion is a formidable piece of masterly display but John Pickard never uses virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake; it is always strongly expressive. Orion is no exception.

As already noted, all pieces get committed, well prepared, impeccable performances. The BBC Singers clearly have the measure of the shorter works and the powerfully expressive Mass. Chloë Abbott’s and David Goode’s playing and musicality cannot be faulted; they serve the often taxing music well. The recording is as fine as one has come to expect from BIS. This splendid release shows a somewhat unusual facet of John Pickard’s music. It is a most welcome addition to his expanding discography, and a must for all his followers.

Hubert Culot

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music