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LABELS: Dutton Epoch
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Sorrel Quartet
What other contemporary composer would state with pride that his string quartets ‘deliberately avoid unconventional playing techniques: tremolandi, artificial harmonics, use of the mute, even pizzicati – all are rigorously excluded!’ If that attitude seems positively puritanical, it’s the positive that needs stressing: over the past decade or so, John Pickard has emerged as one of the most substantial (ie his music is all substance, with no mere effect) among British composers working today. Although his teachers included William Mathias and Louis Andriessen, Robert Simpson seems to have been a decisive inspiration for Pickard’s powerful urge to organic growth and mastery of dynamic motion. With Simpson he shares the ability to move from stillness to furious activity, and back again, clearly demonstrated in the one-movement Second Quartet (three sections all over the same basic pulse). The three-movement Third (1994) contrasts an opening Con fuoco with a sombre central movement, harmonising these extremes in a valedictory, deeply moving elegiac finale. The Fourth (1997-8) casts its net wider, with elements of Baroque stylisation but a thoroughly contemporary sensibility. Altogether this is magnificent quartet-writing and makes an excellent vehicle for one of the finest young British quartets: in fact the four witty ‘concerti’ that form No. 4’s central movement are ‘impudent character sketches’ of the individuals that make up the Sorrel. Enthusiastically recommended: the British quartet tradition is alive and very well in these works. Calum MacDonald