Having a work written for you is surely the ultimate compliment. I imagine that was how the Serbian-French cellist Maja Bogdanovic felt when British composer Philip Sawyers wrote his concerto for her following a commission by the Sydenham International Music Festival in 2010. It is said that what goes around comes around and after a period back in the 1950s and 1960s when to write tunes was considered out of favour composers can again give vent to melody. This Cello Concerto
opens with an extremely memorable tune that dominates the first movement with the orchestra taking it up from the cello with which it then duets. It is a full-blooded piece in the romantic tradition with echoes of several of the great cello concertos of the past. Booklet writer and conductor Kenneth Woods cites Schumann, Dvořàk, Elgar and Walton to which list I would also add Miaskovsky. The second movement is equally beautiful with another extremely attractive tune taking centre-stage. Throughout the concerto the cello is given a truly singing role. The finale is quite different in character to its predecessors with a mercurially whimsical nature that dances around in a much more carefree atmosphere than before. Until one’s heard the concerto a few times this movement may strike one as being at odds with the rest of the concerto, as if it came from a completely different era. Only after repeated listening does it seem to fit more happily into the whole and once it has done the entire jigsaw reveals itself as equally echt
as it is engaging.
Sawyers’ Second Symphony
was also commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival in 2008 with the interesting stipulation that it must use the same forces as the programme’s last work, Beethoven’s seventh symphony. To quote Kenneth Woods’ notes it proves that “... there is a lot of life in the Beethovenian orchestra”. The symphony, which is cast in a single movement fairly bursts onto the scene with the brass stabbing the air at regular intervals. The symphony is full of drama and excitement. While at times it can seem restless and disturbed there are also plenty of moments of calm during which Sawyers’ facility for writing haunting themes shows itself. This is a symphony where the cerebral and the emotional are perfectly in keeping with each other. They deliver a work that is passionate, at times even volcanic, but always genuine in its expression.
The final work on the disc is Sawyers’ Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings
from 2006 which was also a commission, this time from Czech violinist Tomas Tulaček. Once again it bursts into life immediately. The equal partnership between the three elements results in a highly charged and emotionally satisfying work. It's another demonstration of Sawyers’ complete grasp of writing thematically interesting music that rewards the listener at every level. While short in terms of length it is dynamic with a powerfully driven motivic sense that cannot fail to grab the listener’s attention.
Sawyers is a composer of real quality which is so pleasing when there is so much mediocrity around. His music is always fascinating in its breadth of ideas as well as its execution as this disc so amply demonstrates. Maja Bogdanovic shows herself entirely deserving of Sawyers’ attention as dedicatee of the concerto. With her rich tone the Cello Concerto surely has the very best chance of finding a permanent place in the repertoire of many cellists.
OOTS (The Orchestra of the Swan) is Stratford-upon-Avon’s ‘resident band’. It has carved itself an enviable position in Britain’s musical life and as a champion of new music has been responsible for the commissioning of many new works from a host of today’s composers. With Kenneth Woods, their inspiring director, the orchestra has recently been helping put the music of Hans Gàl in its rightly deserved place with a series of acclaimed releases of his symphonies (AV2225
) as well as his String Trios with the Ensemble Epomeo (AV2259
). On this disc the orchestra show how well suited it is to the music of Philip Sawyers while the Steinberg Duo perform the last work in a thoroughly winning way that will help the Concertante
gain many devotees.
This is a disc that anyone new to the music of Philip Sawyers, as I was, will find highly rewarding and thoroughly infectious.
And another review ...
Philip Sawyers is a name I’ve never come across before but I must say that I am delighted to have discovered his music. The three works included here have an instant melodic appeal without being in any way populist. Added to this melodic gift the composer also writes music that actually goes somewhere. There is a good “old fashioned” grasp of form and structure. His experience of playing at the highest level in symphony orchestras for many years has bestowed on him a true expertise in how to orchestrate. These comments could have been made about Malcolm Arnold but that’s where the similarity ends. I love Arnold’s music but Philip Sawyers inhabits a different sound-world. I think we have something really special here.
The Cello Concerto opens with a memorable, singing tune reminiscent of the Moeran Cello Concerto and the Walton Violin Concerto. This tune is the basis for a movement that is contrapuntal in nature and structurally satisfying. The hushed introduction to the slow movement leads to another superb melody, given to the oboe and then the cello. In order to describe what the music actually sounds I think that the corresponding movement of the Barber Violin Concerto is pretty close. There is a violent central section where the brass section rudely interrupts the flow but then we are return to the repose of the opening oboe theme. The finale is based on a 12 tone row but there’s no need to run for cover if you aren’t a disciple of the Second Viennese School. The playful music to be heard here is more Walton than Webern. This is a concerto in the great English tradition and the performance given here by Maga Bogdanovic is superb. The repertoire isn’t exactly awash with great cello concertos. This one deserves to join their ranks.
The opening of Symphony No.2 plunges the listener straight into the action - Nielsen 4 and Brian 22 come to mind. This is a virtuoso concerto for orchestra using the same forces as Beethoven’s Seventh. Sawyer’s mastery of the orchestra is obvious throughout and some of the thematic fragments used in the work remind me of one of my musical heroes - Bob Simpson - especially his Third Symphony. Philip Sawyer manages to condense the traditional structure of a classical symphony into a coherent span running for around twenty minutes. The symphony is emotionally powerful and gripping. I can’t stop playing it. I bet Bob Simpson would have loved it.
We then come to the Concertante. Although on a smaller scale this breathes the same air as the concerto and the symphony. It is melodically engaging and Sawyer yet again demonstrates his knack of being able to communicate with his audience. This is a rare skill indeed.
The playing of the Orchestra of the Swan is dedicated and polished. Individual orchestral soloists are outstanding, especially in the symphony. The recording is good rather than outstanding. Woodwinds are a little distant and in the concerto their important contributions are swamped by the soloist. Musically this is rather special. I hope that Nimbus is planning to record more of Philip Sawyers’ work. Hugely impressive.