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Philip SAWYERS (b 1951)
Violin Concerto (2016) [26:38]
The Valley of Vision (2017) [17:08]
Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani (2015) [26:53]
Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings (2016) [9:10]
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin);
Simon Desbruslais (trumpet)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2017/18, Hereford Shirehall; Church of St George’s, Worcester, UK

The orchestral music of Philip Sawyers has done well in terms of recent recordings, though I’m sorry to say that it’s only recently, largely due to the arrival of this disc for review, that I’ve encountered his music. His First Symphony (2004) and two other orchestral works were included on a disc by the Grand Rapids Symphony and David Lockington, which I’ve not heard, though I see my colleague Nick Barnard was very complimentary about it (review). Nick was also very taken with a disc that included Sawyers’ Third Symphony, which dates from 2015 (review). That’s a disc which I have heard recently and having done so I share Nick’s regard for it. The Second Symphony (2008) and Cello Concerto (2010) were coupled on a disc which, like the others, was issued by Nimbus. That’s a release which I’ve yet to hear but two of my colleagues formed very favourable opinions of it (review). Now Nimbus have produced this, their fourth disc of Sawyers’ orchestral output – they’ve also issued some of his chamber music. As was the case on all the aforementioned discs but one, the conductor is Kenneth Woods in whom Sawyers appears to have found a doughty champion.

Kenneth Woods relates in his booklet notes that it was he who suggested to Philip Sawyers that he should compose a violin concerto – Sawyers himself is a violinist. The resulting concerto is cast in three movements – Moderato; Andante; Allegro. The work was first performed by the present artists in February 2018 in Hereford Shirehall; I don’t know if this CD preserves that performance or whether, as I suspect, the recording was made separately under studio conditions. There’s an important link with the Third Symphony in that the opening theme of the concerto is the theme that dominates the Adagio second movement of the symphony.

At the start of the concerto it seems as if we’re in for Waltonian melancholy but very soon the music becomes vigorous. As I listened, what struck me particularly was the attractiveness of the melodic writing for the solo instrument. Furthermore, the orchestral parts are just as interesting. Even when the soloist is given athletic material to play the solo line continues to sing. There are a couple of forceful passages but for the most part the tone of the music is light and airy. The extensive cadenza (6:19 – 8:51) is often dramatically rhetorical but it ends pensively. Thus is ushered in, seamlessly, a very tranquil ending to the movement during the course of which some of the material from the opening is reviewed.

The second movement, which plays for fractionally over ten minutes, is nearly as long as its predecessor. For much of the time the character of the music is tranquil and it’s almost always lyrical. The writing for both the soloist and the orchestra displays notably fine melodic invention and the quiet end to the movement is simply magical. The finale is engaging and full of joie de vivre. It’s a light-hearted, spirited movement but even so Sawyers does not neglect to make the solo violin sing. This is a really impressive and highly attractive concerto. The solo instrument is treated very well indeed – and the impressive Alexander Sitkovetsky makes the most of the opportunity - while the orchestral contribution is full of melody and colour. Indeed, I very deliberately haven’t used the word “accompaniment” because the orchestra is utterly complementary to the solo instrument and a key contributor to the work.

When invited to write a trumpet concerto, Sawyers took his inspiration – at least as regards scoring – from a work he much admires: Poulenc’s G minor Organ Concerto, which uses an orchestra of strings and timpani. Actually, I’m not entirely sure if the shorthand term “trumpet concerto” is appropriate since the timpanist has a very important role and, writing of the finale, the composer refers to “lots of interplay between soloists and strings”. That said, the trumpeter is by far the dominant presence in the work. It’s a pity, though, that the timpanist is not named: he or she should have been.

The first movement is, in the words of Kenneth Woods. “tense and dramatic”. The writing makes abundant use of the assertive brilliance of the trumpet, even in the less active episodes, and Simon Desbruslais certainly plays with a brilliant tone. Inevitably, the trumpet part contains fanfare-like material at times but Sawyers writes for it with great variety and flair. There’s a demanding cadenza (6:37-7:27) in which the timpanist joins towards the end. The slow movement, which is the longest, begins with a long soulful passage for the trumpet accompanied by hushed strings; here the timpanist has a very limited contribution to make. However, at 3:02 we hear the first of a succession of more turbulent passages – interspersed occasionally with reminders of the soulful opening. In these strong passages the timpani contribute significantly. Eventually (10:02) we return for the last time to the soulful mood and the movement achieves a hushed ending as the trumpet sings plaintively once more time. This work may be a concerto but this eloquent central movement does far more than show off the solo instruments. The finale is exuberant and energetic. It receives a very vital performance. Simon Desbruslais plays with tireless virtuosity and despite the music’s often strenuous demands he never compromises his gleaming tone.

The two orchestral works are far from mere ‘fillers’: both are substantial compositions in their own right. The Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings bears the dedication “For Simon Desbruslais in response to the sad death of John McCabe.” There’s a background story to the work. Woods and Desbruslais met John McCabe in 2012 when they recorded his trumpet concerto, Primavera. Subsequently, when Woods began his association with the ESO he asked McCabe to become the orchestra’s ‘Composer-in-Association’. Sadly, that relationship was cut short by the illness that led to McCabe’s death in February 2015. Then Woods invited Philip Sawyers to become the ESO’s ‘John McCabe Composer-in-Association’. The present work is an immediate fruit of that relationship. Though there are a couple of urgent episodes, which provide effective contrast, most of the piece is slow in tempo and the music has a simple eloquence. These slow passages are gently sorrowful and beautiful. The fine performance is a fitting tribute to McCabe.

The Valley of Vision is a substantial tone poem for a Classical-sized orchestra. I infer from the booklet that the score bears the inscription “Samuel Palmer and Philip Groom….continuing vision.” Philip Groom is a contemporary artist, whose painting Redolent Landscape is reproduced on the cover of this CD. Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) was an English landscape painter and ‘The Valley of Vision’ was the name he gave to an area near his home in Shoreham, Kent, a location with which Philip Sawyers is very familiar. The piece is divided into five sections and though these aren’t separately tracked it’s not too difficult to spot where each one starts. The opening Andante is gently pastoral and most appealing, the scoring delicate. The pił mosso (2:03) has the woodwind to the fore initially, though briefly, towards the end of the section, the music acquires more power. The composer says in his note that the woodwind writing at the start of the meno mosso (3:02) “has slight echoes of Smetana’s Vltava”. Indeed it does; the flute writing that ushers in the section and is taken up by other woodwind colleagues, could have come right from the pages of Vltava. Eventually, this section becomes more passionate for a while but the predominant characteristic is attractive orchestral writing, especially for the woodwind. The Allegro (6:39) is vigorous and, initially, strongly contrapuntal. Here Sawyers writes in a vein that is completely different in character to what has gone before. There’s plenty of energy but we still hear a good deal of pastoral material in the woodwinds. An emphatic trumpet solo is heard immediately before the concluding Andante (11:31). In this closing section the music resumes its pastoral vein but it seems to me that we are hearing something of a ‘Dark Pastoral’. Indeed, as the section unfolds the music becomes quite powerful at times, but the work ends quietly. This is a fine and imaginative composition.

This is an impressive disc. All the music is well worth hearing. The music is imaginatively crafted, constantly showing fine melodic invention and a firm sense of purpose and direction. Clearly Sawyers knows how to get the best out of an orchestra. I’m enjoying my discovery of Philip Sawyers’ music and I’m now resolved to catch up with his first two symphonies. I’m sure that the composer is highly satisfied with the advocacy his pieces receive here. Alexander Sitkovetsky and Simon Desbruslais are terrific soloists while the orchestral playing throughout demonstrates assurance and commitment. Kenneth Woods is clearly a very fine and effective champion for Sawyers’ music.

The recorded sound is good and the booklet contains valuable notes by Kenneth Woods and Philip Sawyers.

John Quinn

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