Philip Sawyers, a new name to me, was born in 1951. He spent most of his adult life in the violin section of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, somehow managing to find time to add works to his catalogue of compositions. Some of those works, as may be seen from this disc, are on a large scale.
My colleague Nick Barnard
has already reviewed this disc, and, like him, I will take the works in chronological order of composition. Sawyers composed his Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass whilst still a student at the Guildhall School in London, and a remarkable achievement it is for one so young. The composer has written the engaging booklet notes accompanying this release, and therein he candidly cites Hindemith and Mahler as influences, the former composer’s Op. 50 Concert Music for Strings and Brass in particular. (I think he might also have been familiar with Hindemith’s Op. 49, the Concert Music for Brass, Piano and Harp.) The young composer’s debt to the German master is evident in almost every bar, as is the debt to both Mahler and, I think, Shostakovich, in some of the string writing. In spite of this the music is distinctive and is clearly the work of a highly gifted young musician. The orchestral writing is equally accomplished, despite one or two passages where Hindemith might have achieved rather more transparency without sacrificing the weight. The work is very well played by the Grand Rapids Symphony under British conductor David Lockington. A certain rawness in one or two passages of brass playing, plus a few moments where – listening without the score – I wasn’t totally convinced that the strings were in complete agreement, are the only signs that this is not one of the world’s top-flight orchestras. The recording is full and immediate, allowing every note to be heard, but there is a fair amount of coughing as well as other noises associated with live recording, more than we have become used to. Applause is retained at the end of the work, and goes on for too long, in my view.
There are fewer extraneous noises in the recording of the symphony, but one particularly grievous example rather sabotages the final note of the very affecting slow movement. Louder passages too, the brilliant scherzo in particular, are accompanied by many a thump from, I imagine, the conductor’s feet. None of that can take away from the brilliance of the performance, however. The work was commissioned by and written for the Grand Rapids Symphony, and it fits them like a glove. Of the four movements, the second is the longest by far. The composer writes that he “had in mind to write one of those spacious Adagios as are found in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler”, and if this suggests derivative writing, I’m happy to confirm that in the intervening years between the Concert Music and the symphony the composer has come a long way to finding his own voice. There are still suggestions of others in there, and the composer is refreshingly candid about them in his insert note. He cites Wagner alongside those mentioned above, and even Haydn in respect of the form of the slow movement, though I can’t see this myself. And is there a nod, perhaps in homage, towards Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question at one point in this same movement? Otherwise, the musical language is reminiscent of that very English school of symphonic composers post Elgar. (I’ve been listening recently to the Lyrita
disc of two symphonies by Robert Still, and this symphony by Sawyers puts me in mind of them.) Hindemith, on the other hand, seems to have bowed out. The work is undoubtedly a highly effective concert piece, but after several hearings I’m still searching for something in the way of really distinctive thematic material. The scherzo is quite brilliantly effective, but manages to be so, in my view, without a single memorable theme. The slow movement again, undoubtedly the heart of the work, features a long, and beautifully played, oboe solo, but the melody itself is strangely lacking in distinction. The composer tells a lovely story about how colleagues in another orchestra helped him experiment with a high trill on four horns. This features at the climax of the slow movement, and a dramatic gesture it is, so it’s a pity that it’s rather lost in the overall texture. I think the finale is the least successful movement: the close is undeniably effective, but the build up to it is garrulous and the movement as a whole is not, I think, a satisfactory culmination of all that has gone before.
The disc opens with the most recent work, The Gale of Life. This is a concert overture, the composer, by his own admission, drawing inspiration from “those great masters of the past, in particular … Berlioz”. The title is taken from Housman’s On Wenlock Edge, but the atmosphere of Sawyers’ piece is a world away from Vaughan Williams’ setting of the poem. It is colourful, dramatic and exuberant, but there’s a touch of desperation about it too, and I’m not clear in my own mind about where it is situated emotionally. There are some marvellous orchestral effects, especially in the woodwind and brass accompanying figures, but again distinctive musical – or more precisely thematic – ideas are in short supply. A rewarding occupation is spotting the quotation, a pastime which the composer’s notes suggest he would fully condone. Is that the Symphonie Fantastique a minute or so before the end, for example?
I agree with Nick Barnard’s view of all this as “music of instant appeal … performed with zealous passion”. Notwithstanding the doubts expressed above, I will certainly be returning to the Concert Music and the symphony, each of which is an example of modern music as gratifying to listen to as it clearly is to perform.
review by Nick Barnard
The Nimbus Catalogue