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Philip SAWYERS (b.1951)
Cello Concerto (2010) [26:20]
Symphony No.2 (2008) [21:30]
Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings (2006) [11:12]
Maja Bogdanovic (cello); Louisa Stonehill (violin); Nicholas Burns (piano)
Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
rec. Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, 14-15 May 2013

Having thoroughly enjoyed the first disc of Philip Sawyer's music on Nimbus Alliance, I was very keen to hear this second volume. Although with a different conductor and orchestra, all the good opinions of the first disc are maintained. Indeed, by not only increasing the number of orchestral works by Sawyers that we can now enjoy but also widening the range of his musical expression this proves to be a very valuable addition to the catalogue.

One of my observations regarding Volume 1 was the consistency of style across works spanning more than thirty years. In comparison, the three compositions here extend over just four, from 2006 - 2010 and represent in the main a darker more pensive side to Sawyers' compositional character. The CD's liner has been written by conductor Kenneth Woods. It proves to be both insightful and valuable as well as written with a passion for the music which he brings to the performances as well as to these analyses.

The disc opens with the most recent work; the Cello Concerto of 2010. As a string player himself, albeit a violinist, it comes as no real surprise that Sawyers should understand how to write so well and lyrically for a string instrument. Indeed it is the song-like lyricism of the first two movements that makes the greatest impression. The earlier disc was defined by rhythm and contrapuntal energy. These characteristics are here too but the focus seems to have turned for the moment to the horizontal use of melody rather than the vertical. As before, Sawyers is remarkably adept at clothing his tunes in the shifting sands of ambiguous harmony, sometimes seemingly straightforward and diatonic and at other times using serial techniques. The result of this is that he does not seem beholden to any particular compositional school or time; simply choosing the method that suits his compositional imperative best at any given moment. The way the musical argument starts from the very first bar and the emphasis on the development of small melodic cells into long flowing melodic lines is very impressive. This is aided in no small part by the excellence of soloist Maja Bogdanovic and the playing of the Orchestra of the Swan. The all-round technical high quality of this production is also worth mentioning here. All the kudos for this can be firmly laid at the door of Simon Fox-Gál since he is credited with the recording's production, engineering and editing.

Although there is virtuosity in the solo writing - confidently dispatched here - the abiding impression is one of extended ruminating on the basic musical building blocks. It is nearly six minutes before any kind of extended climax is reached. Even this is quickly silenced by the soloist's cadenza - as Wood notes; "... it is the soulful vocal quality of the cello that is to the fore throughout." The close of the first movement can catch the listener out; from the end of the cadenza the music returns briefly to the work's opening before fading into an unresolved silence. The mood of uneasy introspection continues in the central adagio with the oboe leading with a poignantly nostalgic melody. This is then taken on by the soloist and the sense of a song without words is reinforced. I particularly like Sawyers' handling of the orchestra, textures are kept sparse but effective, nothing is over-scored or excessive. There is a real sense - much as I had in volume 1 - of a composer who understands how to get the maximum effect out of an orchestral group without the need to layer on ever more instruments or doublings of lines. Likewise, although I have not seen a score and by no means 'easy', this sounds like thoroughly playable music - not simply hard for hardness' sake. The proportions of the concerto work well too. The central adagio provides the emotional core and as such is the longest section - if only just - of the work. After the internalised emotion of the first two movements the extrovert good humour of the closing allegro comes as something of a shock. In spirit it is closer to the music of Vol.1 although slyer and spryer. There is a Waltonian wit and craft here. It is not that this sounds like Walton but rather that they share a similar skill and humour although Sawyers seems to be exploring a neo-classical vein I had not heard in his work before. This expresses itself in a bustling fugato passage - the inner string writing is where I hear Walton. Whereas the preceding movements rarely roused themselves to any kind of extended energy this in contrast is almost a moto perpetuo. Even here Sawyers writes some long-limbed lyrical lines although they are underpinned by impatiently insistent string figures that refuse to be ignored. This sense of busy-ness is maintained through to the end which finishes not so much in a burst of firework like display but a rather a ski-jump; an arcing upwards of musical energy. After the expressive power of the first two movements the relative good-humoured detachment of the finale feels like something of a surprise, even if it is an enjoyable one. I am not sure I have quite managed to make the whole work cohere in my head yet but it is certainly an impressive and valuable addition to the cello concerto repertoire.

Impressive though the Cello Concerto is the Symphony No.2 that follows it is even more so. The 2008 commission from the London Mozart Players stipulated that the orchestra used should not be larger than that required for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony which was to form the second half of the concert. Whether by choice, inclination or circumstance Sawyers imposed two further 'limitations' - it lasts little more than twenty minutes in total and is written in one continuous movement, even though sub-divisions within the larger form are clearly delineated. What is remarkable about this work is how quickly the listener is drawn in by its sweep and emotional scale; in no sense is this a 'little' symphony. Again, not a moment is wasted at the opening with introductory material, but unlike the musings of the cello concerto this is the vigorous, dynamic Sawyers familiar from the earlier disc. However, the prevailing mood is again serious. There is a sense of drama and struggle which, allied to the compressed form and skilful construction, makes for a powerful listening experience. All of these impressions are again reinforced by the superior quality of both the playing and the engineering - listen to how well the virtuosic trumpet writing is played and the timpani are caught with ideal presence and clarity. It is interesting to read in the liner that Sawyers characterises the work as; "[a] symphonic journey [of] almost continual development". Continuous variation is one of the concepts that underpins the Second Viennese School and Kenneth Woods points out that Sawyers makes use of such serial composition techniques. That said, such is his skill that his 12-tone rows are thoroughly absorbed into an idiom that is more tonally-centred than atonal.

There are four easily defined sections to the Symphony which follow the rough pattern of quick, moderate, intermezzo and a finale which revisits material from the earlier sections. The devils that haunt this work persist through to the very final bars. Indeed it ends with a remarkably abrupt slam of a musical door without a sense of the fundamental issues having been resolved. Again there is a Waltonian drive present but this is strongly personal and individual music. Although by no means simple or indeed obvious at the same time this is an instantly appealing work - and one which slowly reveals it depths and craft the more one listens to it. As such I would imagine it is a gift for chamber orchestras looking for a substantial work suited to the reduced scale of such groups. Certainly it deserves the widest possible dissemination.

The disc closes with the slightest and shortest work offered here. Again it is a concertante work, this time for piano and violin duet accompanied by strings. The liner names violinist Tomas Tulacek as the commissioner and it is hard not to hear the violin as the first amongst equals in the soloist stakes. Sawyers uses the piano to reinforce the string bass lines in particular and when the two solo parts do duet - often echoing each other it is hard not to think that the widely arching lines sound more expressive on the violin — Sawyers' own instrument — than when played on the piano. Not that this is a comment on the execution of the solo parts. The Steinberg Duo have proved themselves stalwarts of Sawyers' music in the past having recorded his two violin sonatas and the playing is again uniformly excellent. On the earlier disc Sawyers wrote in the liner of his affinity with Bartók and the combination of strings and piano does remind one of the Hungarian master. Again, the concision of the writing and the clarity of the composer's intent is hugely impressive. Likewise, the mood remains clouded and troubled with another broom-sweep of an ending bringing the work to an abrupt end.

All in all this is an excellent disc, powerful music presented in performances it is hard to imagine being easily surpassed. Clearly Sawyers' music inspires his performers. Both discs have been blessed by the highest calibre of music-making allied to a real sense of near evangelical passion. This is accessible in the best sense - knotty but not opaque, challenging but compelling. All of which proves that traditional forms such as the symphony or concerto still have much to offer and that for contemporary music to "appeal" it does not need to rely on extra-musical gimmicks, dumbing-down or multi-media presentation. When it is this good not a lot else matters.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: John France, Steve Arloff and John Whitmore