PICKER: Cello Concerto. And Suddenly It’s Evening. Piano Concerto No. 2

PICKER Cello Concerto. And Suddenly It’s Evening. Piano Concerto No. 2, “Keys to the City”· Thomas Sanderling, cond; Russian Phil O; Paul Watkins (vc); Jeremy Denk (pn)· CHANDOS CHAN-10039 (62:11)

Not quite 50 years of age, Tobias Picker has become one of the most widely performed composers of his generation, many of his major works having enjoyed presentation at the most auspicious venues. Two of his full-length operas, Emmeline and Thérèse Raquin, are available on CD (see respective reviews in Fanfare 22:4 and 26:2, or on my web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com), and a new one is scheduled for a Metropolitan Opera premiere during the 2004-05 season. Born and educated in the New York City area, Picker studied with Charles Wuorinen and Elliott Carter, before-like many composers of his generation-rejecting their commitment to serialist dogma in favor of a sophisticated and broadly flexible eclecticism. Although this is a path that many of his peers have followed, the music that has resulted has, of course, varied widely in quality. The three substantial works on this new Chandos release, offered via superb performances featuring the Russian Philharmonic under the direction of Thomas Sanderling, are generally rewarding at first hearing, while inviting deeper acquaintance. 

The most impressive work of the three is the four-movement Cello Concerto, commissioned by the BBC. Although, completed in 1999, it is nominally the most recent, the concerto is actually a re-working of material from several earlier pieces, including And Suddenly It’s Evening, also featured on this disc. Its two lyrical outer movements framing two inner movements of somewhat scherzo-like character, the work as a whole is pervaded by a mood of poignant, reflective melancholia. Such a characterization suggests an affinity with the respective cello concertos of Elgar and Barber, and this is certainly borne out, although a strong propensity for the dryly detached gestures and accented rhythmic bounce characteristic of Stravinsky is frequently noted during the inner movements-as well as in the other pieces presented here. Nevertheless, the concerto compels attention throughout, with many passages of considerable beauty, and holds its own nicely in a comparison with the two beloved earlier works just mentioned. Cellist Paul Watkins, who introduced the concerto in 2001, serves as a convincing advocate for its significance within the active cello repertoire.

And Suddenly It’s Evening is a 20-minute orchestral work in three movements. Because it was commissioned by a consortium of youth orchestras, Picker conceived the work around the notion of “youth,” viewed chiefly from a retrospective standpoint, having completed the work in 1994, the year of his 40th birthday. However, he refrained from any sort of “writing down,” either technically or conceptually, borrowing the title of the work from a poem concerning the evanescence of youth by Salvatore Quasimodo. The outer movements again call Stravinsky to mind, although this observation is not intended to diminish their attractiveness or deny their individuality. The first movement is also somewhat evocative of gamelan music, while the rhythmically accented yet generally subdued finale conjures an appealing sense of mystery. The second movement features an extended violin solo, with passages of considerable lyrical beauty along the lines of Barber. My only complaint with this work involves several passages-in both the first and second movements-in which textures seem a bit congested and muddy. I might attribute this to inadequacies in the performance, were it not for the fact that I have noticed similar passages in other works of his, and that the performances of all three of these works are quite splendid for the most part. Whether these passages indicate defects in the scoring or an attempt at some sort of Ivesian effect I am not sure.

Picker is an accomplished pianist, and that instrument plays an important role in both works just discussed, but, of course, even more so in the remaining work-the piano concerto subtitled Keys to the City. This is one of the works that first brought Picker to widespread public attention, some twenty years ago. In 1982 he won a competition that resulted in a commission for a work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. The one-movement concerto attempts to evoke something of a New York sensibility through a highly imaginative whirlwind cornucopia of brief, splashy episodes suggesting a wide variety of styles from neo-Gershwin to angular atonality, with a rather explicit nod to Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety around the two-thirds point. Initially some of the episodes seem awkward and the successions a little forced, suggesting a Corigliano-like “kitchen sink” approach, but the work picks up confidence, flair, and momentum, finally creating quite a stunning impact. Although I have not heard the performance issued on CRI with Picker himself as soloist, I can safely assert that this new rendition featuring the young American pianist Jeremy Denk is sensational.

Picker has unquestionably developed into a composer of considerable talent and imagination. What I still miss from his music is the sense of a unique personal identity, a coherent aesthetic world-view that underlies and unifies his work. But perhaps that sort of thing is more important to me than it is to other listeners, and, in any case, often takes time and continuing acquaintance to become apparent.