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Philip SAWYERS (b.1951)
Symphony No.3 (2015) [38:31]
Songs of Loss & Regret (2013) [24:06]
Fanfare (2016) [3:47]
April Fredrick (soprano)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2017, Hereford Cathedral (symphony), 2015 (Songs & Fanfare), Wyastone Concert Hall, Wales

Nimbus Alliance have proved to be stalwart supporters of composer Philip Sawyers. This is the third disc devoted to his orchestral music, with a fourth sharing his Violin Sonatas with Elgar's. And this admiration and respect is clearly mutual and not limited to simply a professional relationship; the very impressive song cycle presented here, Songs of Loss and Regret, is dedicated to Nimbus’ Music Director Adrian Farmer. The close ties between performers and composer goes even further with the 3rd Symphony dedicated to conductor Kenneth Woods who directs the performance - as he did of the works including the 2nd Symphony on one of the earlier releases.

All of which points to the fact that this is a recording produced and released by a team wholly dedicated to the project - a level of commitment which is palpable throughout. I have reviewed the previous two volumes in this series and there is a very strong sense of a composer honing his craft. Whereas the first disc spanned music from Sawyer’s student years through to recent works, both the second and third volumes focus on recent compositions. Again, this points to the fact the Sawyers is fortunate indeed to have artistic and record- industry support promoting his recent important work in such impressive and persuasive performances. Not that any composer ‘needs’ any performance or recording to know how their music will sound, but as a way of ensuring a wider audience this is vital. By chance, as I write this review the disc that finally completes the cycle of Havergal Brian symphonies has been released. Not that I am making any musical comparison, but while Brian composed with no real expectation of ever having his music heard - let alone recorded - Sawyers must surely be hugely appreciative of the support he receives. Indeed, further evidence for this is the fact that the 3rd Symphony given here is the first product of the English Symphony Orchestra's admirable ‘21st Century Symphony Project’. Simply put, this project seeks to create a new body of work, commissioning composers to write modern works in symphonic form. With Sawyers’ 3rd Symphony the project has got off to a very impressive start.

This is Sawyers’ longest symphony to date. No.1 runs just over the half-hour mark, No.2 was a superbly concentrated single movement span of just under twenty-two minutes and now No.3 is 38:31. I think there is a case here that these timings alone do tell a valid part of the musical story. Symphony No.1 from 2004 is the first major work listed on Sawyers’ website, that postdates his career change from full-time violinist in the Royal Opera House orchestra. This is a work that teems with orchestral colour and musical events as well as being instantly appealing for the listener. My sense is that in the intervening years Sawyers has had the time to dig deeper into the abstract almost philosophical side of the why and how he composes. In the liner Kenneth Woods’ excellent and informative note: Symphony No.3 - the conductor’s perspective is prefaced by a quotation from Sayers – “To me the symphonic ideal is one of ‘becoming’, of almost organic growth. It is a journey through a myriad of musical ideas that are as closely argued as any philosophical treatise”. This implies to me that Sawyers seeks to create abstract pure music when addressing symphonic form. In this symphony Sawyers adapts serial technique, using all twelve semi-tones of the chromatic scale to create themes that allow him great harmonic flexibility while remaining within an extended tonal framework. Of course, Sawyers is not the first broadly tonal composer to explore the possibilities of 12-tone composition. Within a four-movement symphonic form it remains a very effective way of combining traditional elements with the modernist implications of extended or atonal composition.

At a first listen this is the most rigorous and demanding of his three symphonies. From the outset, without any preamble, Sawyers articulates a rather sombre unglamorous ‘working out’ of his germinal musical material. Woods describes the piece as being in the tradition of “darkness to light” symphonies which I must admit I do not really recognise - by the closing bars of the work there is an undoubted sense of resolution and arrival but I am not sure I could describe this as valediction or triumph in the sense that is implicit in the description of “light” given by Woods. The liner is very good at guiding the listener through the structure of the work’s movements showing how tonal centres rather than traditional keys are the main structural components. Another change from the previous symphonies is a sense that Sawyers is reining in his natural flair for orchestration. All three discs show clearly that Sawyers can handle the resources of a modern - or smaller - symphony orchestra to brilliant effect. But here, I wonder whether he has consciously focused on the musical material rather than on sound. Not that there are not passages of great orchestral brilliance - for a string player Sawyers always writes with real feel and flair for the brass - but it strikes me that he is trying to avoid obvious orchestral ‘glamour’.

The heart of the work in every sense lies in the 2nd movement Adagio which opens with an A flat octave leap sul G in the violins which gives the music a Brucknerian intensity which is powerfully maintained throughout the thirteen-minute span - making this the longest movement in the work by some distance. Although there is no explicit programme, this is an impressively expressive piece of sustained writing with more lyrical interludes balancing the power of the massed instrumental passages. As Woods writes, the 3rd movement - a near flippant Intermezzo - comes as something of a surprise - I must admit to hearing an odd blend of Nielsen’s 2nd & 6th Symphonies - a kind of 4 Temperaments allegro flemmatico out of a sinfonia semplice humoreske. Certainly, after the weight of the preceding music and indeed the storm yet to break in the finale, this is a fascinatingly quirky diversion. Battle is rejoined in the finale. The structural cohesion of the entire work is demonstrated in the way Sawyers revisits 12 tone themes - as well as exploring the potential of fugal writing, juxtaposing chorale themes with complex counterpoint and using devices such as the circle of fifths to create a very personal but highly effective shape. Given Sawyers’ development as a composer it is probably right and proper that his most recent essay in symphonic form should be his most demanding to date for the listener.

The eight movement song cycle Songs of Loss and Regret dates from a couple of years before the symphony. In this work Sawyers is in no way over-awed at the prospect of producing not just an anthologising cycle of the style that Britten made his own but also by choosing to set some of the best known, best loved and famously-set poems in the English language. So Sawyers gives us his versions to compare with Britten’s War Requiem setting of ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen and three settings of Housman to go alongside any number of other famed settings. In fact Sawyers chooses Housman for three of the eight songs. Whereas the Symphony was recorded under studio conditions, the song cycle was caught live in concert at Hereford Cathedral. All credit to performers and engineers for the latter because the sound is very good - with little if any of the acoustic clouding you might expect of such a venue and what sounds like a near flawless performance. If the symphony was objective and absolute, this song cycle is deeply personal and emotionally explicit. It is beautifully sung by soprano April Frederick who not only makes a beautiful sound but points musical and textual phrases with subtle skill and sensitivity. Sawyers has chosen some of the most quotable of all English poems so there is always the question - which after all was Housman’s enduring complaint when asked for permission to set his words - what can the music add to the poem without diluting or diverting the poet’s intent.

Sawyers’ answer is not to try and gild the poetic lily but rather to write accompaniments that exist in parallel alongside the poems as a fellow artist’s commentary or response to the existing text. This works very well indeed. I particularly liked the Owen setting - written as a poignantly touching lullaby-like rocking accompaniment. Originally conceived for voice and piano they sound brilliantly effective in this string orchestra version - no real surprise that Sawyers writes with such understanding of what ‘works’ for strings. Again, Sawyers is setting himself in direct comparison to Britten’s compositions, which dominate the genre as far as British works are concerned. But it has to be said that in no way does this cycle pale by that comparison. In the liner note Sawyers explains the emotional arc of the work as well as the way he was happy to embrace “an English feel” in the three Housman settings which open the work. In many ways this encapsulates Sawyers’ success as a composer; he is confident enough in his own individuality to be comfortable to emulate others - either by choice of form, text or indeed style - when that serves his own artistic purpose. It is something of a relief to encounter a composer who does not endlessly strive to be different just for the sake of being different. The liner includes all the texts used in their original English versions only.

The disc is completed with something of a musical bonne bouche; an extended fanfare which rather gleefully tips its to everything from Bliss’ great ceremonial fanfares through to something rather akin to John Williams in Star-Wars mode. This again was recorded in the cathedral setting, which adds a richly resplendent grandeur to the sound of the impressive brass section of the English Symphony Orchestra. This rather neatly brings me onto the quality of the playing and music-making on this disc. From the liner note alone it is clear that conductor Kenneth Woods is a passionate and convincing advocate for this music - as indeed he was for the 2nd Symphony - and the accompanying works on that disc - too. But this is evidenced by as compelling a first recording as I could imagine these works receiving. Of course, the future will always contain ‘other ways’ but this disc sets down triumphantly interpretations of distinction and of great individual and collective skill. The playing of the English Symphony Orchestra is extremely adept, from weighty string playing through solo winds of great sensitivity to brass of bite and power. The recording, overseen throughout by Simon Fox-Gál, is excellent, with remarkably little difference between the two recording venues. Throughout there is an ideal balance between detail and a well-balanced orchestral picture.

Hopefully Nimbus Alliance will continue to promote both Sawyers’ work as well as the other music produced under the auspices of the 21st Century Symphony Project. Slowly but surely the catalogue of Philip Sawyers music is building both in quantity and quality - this is a wholly impressive addition to that catalogue.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Gary Higginson



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