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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

I recently reviewed Philip Sawyers’ two Violin Sonatas released on Nimbus Alliance NI6240 and his First Symphony on Nimbus NI6129. My conclusion was that in these days, when so much ‘art’ music has jumped onto the ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ bandwagon it is good to come across a composer whose music has emotion, challenge and structure. His musical style has embraced some ‘honest, down-to-earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled organization and moments of sheer inspiration’. It is a supposition that holds good for the present release of these three important symphonic and concerted works.
Philip Sawyers has an excellent website where all necessary biographical information can be accessed. However a couple of notes may be of help. Sawyers was born in London in 1951. He studied violin with Colin Sauer, Joan Spencer and Max Rostal. Interestingly, his composition teacher was Helen Glatz, who had been a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Further guidance came from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. Between 1973 and 1997 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden. Sawyers concentrates now on composing, but fills his ‘spare time’ as a freelance violin teacher and player and as an adjudicator for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is not until the past twenty or so years that Sawyers has begun to make a considerable name for himself as a major composer.
The earliest work on this CD is the Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings which was composed in 2006: it was commissioned by the Czech violinist Tomas Tulacek. The liner-notes point out that there are few works for this combination: Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn spring to mind. The composer has written that this work is ‘quite playful in its outer sections’ - conversely, I find that this ‘playfulness’ is edgy and even a little sinister. It may have been inspired by an eighteenth century divertimento, but these are deep waters with a central section that is almost heart-breaking in its exploration of the twelve-note theme. The ‘finale’ moves a little towards easing the emotional tension, but this is no throwaway rondo designed to raise applause. This is a hard-won struggle to overcome the introspection of the slow movement.
The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival and was duly premiered by the London Mozart Players under Robert Trory who died sadly in August 2013. The only stipulation was that the ‘orchestral forces’ had to be the same as for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony which was also included in the premiere’s programme. The composer has noted that his Symphony No. 2 is not in the ‘traditional four movement mould’. Notwithstanding this assertion, this single movement work does fall into four sections: quick opening, slow second section, an intermezzo and a fourth ‘movement’ that reuses earlier material and rounds it all off with a substantial peroration. Sawyers has stated that the musical material of this symphony is ‘motivically based’ and that the ‘symphonic journey’ is of continual development. Ah! How I love that word ‘development’ and not just ‘repetition’ or ‘repetition with slight variation’ that seems to haunt so much ‘modern’ music.
The sound-world of this outstanding symphony is something of a ‘fusion’ – even without the score it is easy to ‘imagine’ the working-out of 12-tone techniques. There are moments when the listener may be tempted to think that the composer is using a particular key, and then this illusion is blown away, and Webernian atonalism seems to take grip. Post-romanticism is a keynote in some passages, as is the aggression of RVWs Fourth Symphony. This ‘fusion’ is seamless and totally coherent: this is what makes Sawyers’ Symphony ‘great’. It is a carefully contrived synthesis that is musically satisfying and successful. Add to this the colourful use of the orchestra and the stage is set for an important addition to the huge range of British symphonies written over the past 150 years. The most essential thing is that this is a powerful, emotionally charged work that inspires and moves the listener.
The latest work on this CD was also commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival for their 2010 event. It was written for the present soloist, the Serbian-French cellist Maja Bogdanovic. The composer has suggested that although the concerto has some ‘technically demanding passages’ the intention was not to write a virtuosic showpiece; more to reflect on what the ‘cello means to me and convey the moods and nuances of expression that I find most appealing in the instrument.’
This is an approachable work that makes an impact on first hearing. The liner-notes mention a critical Saywers’ fingerprint already noted above; the ability to move easily between ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary’. Added to this is the wayward ‘interplay’ of emotions – at one moment lyrical, then spirited, sometimes ironic and occasionally ferocious. Yet these are not musical clichés that are strung together: they evolve and develop one to another.
The Cello Concerto is an extremely satisfying representative of a genre that is relatively uncommon in British music. If I was pressed, I would say that a ‘finger in the air’ comparison would be ‘Finzi meets Searle’ and discuss Schumann but this is facile. Philip Sawyer’s Cello Concerto is unique and will reveal itself in repeated hearings: if it is given the chance.
The notes are excellent - and the print is not too small. They offer an exploration of these three pieces by the present Principal Guest Conductor of the Swan Orchestra, Kenneth Woods. These are interpolated with notes by the composer. Included are biographical details about the performers and the Orchestra of the Swan which is based in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I consider that the performances of all three works are exemplary and display the orchestra’s skill and enthusiasm. The soloists are clearly impressive in their interpretation of this music.
One final thought. I am not a Beethoven fan. However, I can understand why he is ‘great’. His Seventh Symphony - the one that was performed alongside Sawyers’ Second - has some 299 recordings currently listed on Arkiv: Sawyers’ has this present one. It seems to me that most British symphonies - apart from the likes of Tippett, Elgar, RVW, Arnold, Bax - seem to stretch to a single recording, if lucky, and less than a handful of performances. It is something that makes me go ‘Hmmm’. Is Beethoven that much better? I will listen to Sawyers’ 2 again. Beethoven can wait a wee while longer.
John France

Previous reviews: Steve Arloff & John Whitmore