Philip SAWYERS (b.1951)
The Gale of Life (2006) [10:32]
Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972) [18:24]
Symphony No.1 (2004) [34:27]
Grand Rapids Symphony/David Lockington
rec. DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 11-12 January 2002 (Symphonic Music); 19-20 November 2004 (Symphony); 9 September 2008 (Gale of Life)
The series of discs being released under the banner of Nimbus Alliance is rapidly building into a fascinating and significant collection. In part I’m reminded of the old Argo label which combined high performance and production values with a questing and questioning approach to repertoire. All of those qualities are on display here with a disc showcasing the very considerable talents of the British composer Philip Sawyers. I enjoyed this disc very much from the very first playing and my appreciation of the stature of the music it contains has grown with each repeat listening.
Sawyers will celebrate his 60th birthday next year. He spent twenty-four years from 1973 as a member of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. That orchestra was then and remains today one of the very finest and Sawyers joined them straight from college so clearly he is a seriously good violinist as well as composer. I mention that here because I think the playing experience he has impinges directly on the quality of the music he writes. Sawyers has written the liner-notes for this disc and they are as informative as they are insightful. Crucially, from my point of view, they reveal – almost in passing – Sawyers’ pragmatically practical approach to composition as well as his innate respect for his fellow players. Both of these facets result in music that is as rewarding to play and listen to as it is challenging. I will write about the music chronologically because, as Sawyers explains, to some degree each work begat the next. The earliest work here is the 1972 Symphonic Music for Brass and Strings written while Sawyers was still a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I would challenge anyone to identify this as a student or even early work. Perhaps it exudes the confidence of youth but not at the expense of form or fluency. Again the liner is illuminating; Sawyers cites the Hindemith Konzertmusik Op.50 as an initial inspiration. He mentions Hindemith’s remark that “tonality is like gravity – you ignore it at your peril” and that is the key [pun intended] to all three works presented here. Sawyers avoids keys in the traditional sense but prefers instead ‘tonal centres’. These act as the gravitational focal points around which the music can almost literally orbit. I feel he is being almost too confessional admitting the further influence of Bartók and Mahler. Not that there aren’t passing moments but lucky the composer who is able to write in totally splendid isolation unaffected by the writings of anyone else. What I find most impressive is his confident handling of form in such an early work. The piece is a single movement span lasting more than eighteen minutes. Yet never once does the attention wander or the interest flag. More than anything else this is exciting music. From a calm opening listen to the way the Sawyer builds the music to the first extended climax around 3:15. For a violinist I think he’s a frustrated horn-player – as indeed am I! The brass writing is muscular, athletic and spectacular. In this he is helped hugely by excellent playing throughout. The continued support of a fine and dedicated group of musicians is oxygen to any composer. The recordings here are taken from live performances spread over six years. This is the third disc I have heard by this orchestra and in each case they have sounded superb. As an aside I would warmly recommend the Hailstork Symphonies on Naxos as well as the harder to find Ott Symphonies on Koss. All of these discs show the Grand Rapids Symphony to have agile and sweet strings, the powerful sonorous brass already alluded to and characterful alert wind.
I have written elsewhere how I find the use of often pointless ‘extended’ performance techniques irritating. Too often these mask a fundamental paucity in the composer’s musical imagination instead having to fall back on superficial effect. Imagine my delight to read in Sawyers’ note “I didn’t want something devoid of colour, but I wanted to avoid all those gratuitously used special effects….. I was also interested in absolute music, something classic and pure with no programmatic overtones”. Take my word for it Mr Sawyers – you’ve succeeded brilliantly, how refreshing to hear music confident enough in its own essential strength to be true to itself. This is music without artifice or ornament, simply honest and strong – and so much the better for that. Although in one continuous movement the work falls into five sections – again Sawyers modestly acknowledges a structural debt to Bartók in his use of this arch/mirror form. At the centre of this is a very beautiful passage for violins and solo horn – it’s that horn again! – the instruments entwining around each other in an increasingly passionate musical embrace. Again, for a (then) young composer the pacing of this build is hugely impressive. Credit too to the engineering of this disc – yes there are occasional reminders of an audience’s presence but this is something that rarely bothers me and certainly not when the trade-off is a group of performances that palpably radiate the energy and electricity that these do all of which has been caught in wonderfully present sound. Exciting is a word that my listening notes contain repeatedly. Surely only those congenitally opposed to any music written post 1920 can fail to find the final climax hurled out by the trombones at the 17:00 mark thrilling – actually this is a moment that recalled Hindemith’s Symphony -Mathis der Maler.
One of the mysteries not addressed by the liner-note – or on Sawyers’ own website – is the compositional silence of the years he was at Covent Garden. Certainly the demands made on the time and energy of a pit player are greater than that of a standard orchestral player; more performances of often longer works requiring more rehearsals. For whatever reason the next orchestral work mentioned on the website is the next work on this disc too – the Symphony No.1 of 2004 commissioned by the performers here. Indeed, from the recording dates I assume that this is a record of that premiere. Fortunate indeed the composer whose music receives such dedicated and well prepared first performances. This is a substantial work; cast in traditional four movement symphonic form it runs to over thirty four minutes. Again the instrumental writing is as effective as it is impressive – glowering brass climaxes superbly rendered. Sawyers notes that he has used a 12-note row to forge the thematic material of the opening movement but this should not be taken to mean that this music is atonal. Rather this is a structural device, for some reason this music has the feel of a dark inexorably tragic march magnificent and inevitable with tubular bells in the background the ‘passing bells for those who die as cattle’. Not that Sawyers suggests anything of the sort – pure fancy on my behalf. From this the balm of the D major – initially at least – Adagio – is very moving indeed. A fragile flute laments over meditative strings. Again the quality of the players is apparent – the previously mentioned flute is quite ravishingly beautiful as is the oboe that soon joins. The calm is shattered by a central section of impassioned protest. A common feature from the earlier work is Sawyers avoidance of any superficial effect – this is ‘proper’ writing rigorously argued. There is a vocal quality to much of the writing – lyrical in the literal sense that left me wondering if that is a consequence of so many years ‘Gardening’. This movement is by some way the most extended of the symphony and reaches another epic climax at 11:00 which Sawyers refers to almost guiltily as ‘filmic’. Not to my mind; rewarding, cathartic, impressive yes; anything pejorative absolutely not. Context is all – this passage arrives as a natural result of what has come before and the sinking back to the string led calm of the movement’s opening works all the better for the resplendent nature of that final peak. Not because there are musical similarities but because the music evoked a similar emotional response in me I found myself thinking of the heraldic writing of Bliss in A Colour Symphony and the Panufnik Sinfonia Sacra - two of my very favourite works so not faint praise in my book. There follows the shortest section of the work – a fleet and agile Scherzo all scurrying energy and nervous vigour. The skirling wind and fraught brass fanfares did evoke some of Malcolm Arnold’s writing and that word exciting appeared again. Sawyers’ ability to maintain the momentum cannot fail to impress as does the playing here; this is a virtuosic movement played with enormous panache. Sawyers likens the opening of the Finale to having a chorale-like quality. This is soon displaced by some angrily contrapuntal writing the various sections of the orchestra warring against each other. Again this is 12-tone based but the effect is more passacaglia-like with a recurring sequence of chords/melodic shapes providing the basis from which the movement develops. This leads to a final craggily impressive statement of the chorale theme [track 6 7:00] before a resolution into one last D major chord. I see that Sawyers has written a second symphony – a work I would love to hear on the strength of this one.
The disc opens with the most recent work; the rather splendidly titled The Gale of Life from 2006. This is a good old-fashioned concert overture taking its name from a line in A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”; ‘…through him the gale of life blew high’. The commission came from the Albany Symphony Orchestra in New York State as a result of hearing the scherzo of the symphony. Certainly they occupy the same helter-skelter world and it makes as cracking an opener for this CD as it would for any concert. Am I alone in lamenting the demise of a short orchestral work to open a concert? All the virtues both compositionally and in execution apparent in the earlier works are evident here too. My only thought is the basic motif that drives the work is not quite as interesting or strong as the themes Sawyers develops in the two larger works. His handling of the material is every bit as confident though. An interesting thought is how consistent Sawyers has been with his music across the 34 years that span the music presented here and hopefully there will be many more opportunities to hear his work both on disc and in concert.
A disc which reflects great credit on all involved – music of instant appeal and enduring quality performed with zealous passion recorded in excellent sound. Well-worth investigating.
Nick Barnard
Reflects great credit on all involved – music of instant appeal and enduring quality performed with zealous passion recorded in excellent sound.