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Philip SAWYERS (b. 1951)
Symphony No. 4 (2018) [36:26]
Hommage to Kandinsky. A Symphonic Poem for Orchestra (2014) [28:00]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2020, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
NIMBUS NI6405 [64:32]

Kenneth Woods is a determined champion of the music of Philip Sawyers. He’s already recorded a disc which coupled the Second Symphony (2008) and Cello Concerto (2010) (review). He also set down the Third Symphony (2015) which, justifiably, received an enthusiastic welcome here (review). I myself reviewed another of Woods’ discs which surveyed four of Sawyers’ orchestral works, including two concertos. This new disc means that all four of Sawyers’ symphonies (to date) have been recorded because the First Symphony (2004) featured on an excellent disc by the Grand Rapids Symphony and David Lockington (review).

In fact, Hommage to Kandinsky is directly connected to Lockington and the Grand Rapids Symphony. The orchestra commissioned the work in celebration of Lockington’s tenure as their Music Director; he stepped down from that role in May 2015, having served since January 1999, and he now holds the title of Conductor Laureate. He and the orchestra premiered this symphonic poem in September 2014 – I suspect it featured in the opening programme of his final season. The booklet contains an excellent and detailed essay about the music by Kenneth Woods, which incorporates extensive quotes from the composer himself. I have found these invaluable and I've draw upon them in describing these two works, both of which were new to me.

The origins of the symphonic poem lie in Sawyers’ visit to a Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern in London in 2006. Through seeing these paintings, he came to a new appreciation of how painting might stimulate music. In particular, he was struck by one painting, Composition IV, painted in 1911. It’s reproduced in the booklet but, sadly, only in black and white. As the notes make clear, Sawyers’ piece is not intended to be a literal response in music to this or any other Kandinsky painting; rather, it’s an emotional response to the painter’s overall work. To be honest, that’s probably just as well since I have no understanding at all of modern art such as Kandinsky’s so I wouldn’t be able to relate what I hear to any visual impressions. I can, however, appreciate it as a piece of music.

It’s worth recalling, I think, that for 24 years (1973-97) Philip Sawyers made his living as a violinist; he was a member of the Royal Opera House orchestra for all of that period and also did a lot of freelancing. That’s relevant, I believe, because the two scores on this CD and the other four discs of his orchestral music that I’ve heard demonstrate that this is a composer with a fine understanding of the modern orchestra. Couple that with a genuine melodic voice, a gift for expressing and developing his ideas, and a flair for orchestral colouring and you have a composer whose work demands to be taken very seriously.

Hommage to Kandinsky is cast in a single movement but within that there are a number of sections. Though Nimbus haven't tracked the sections separately, timings of the sections are provided in the booklet and the notes give a good resumé of what one is hearing. After a quiet start, the work soon bursts into life. Throughout the work I was impressed by the loud and fast passages of music but the greatest impression was made on me by the slower, more reflective episodes. So, for example, there’s a beautifully crafted lyrical section, introduced by the cor anglais, not long after the start (2:48). A little later (4:40), the violins play a graceful little waltz, an idea that will recur later. That’s soon followed by a lovely and lyrical Andante section (5:42-8:18), which eventually gives way to a Vivace of great energy.

For me, one of the outstanding passages is an Adagio (from 14:32), which starts mysteriously but soon becomes broad and expressive. Until 17:25, when things become much more potent for a short while, the music scarcely raises its voice; it doesn’t need to. After a short episode of fast, brilliant music we reach the concluding Adagio (21:40). This is deeply impressive; the music is powerful and intensely felt. The long melodic lines are repeatedly punctuated by a series of triads on woodwind and/or brass. (These triads have been in evidence frequently during the piece; they are a natural consequence of Sawyers’ decision to score the work for triple woodwind and trios of trumpets and trombones.) From about 25:30 there’s an expansive conclusion during which the tone of the piece becomes serene; hereabouts a lengthy violin melody particularly caught my attention. There’s just one last brief big statement for full orchestra before a soft C major ending. This is a very impressive piece which is inventively imagined for a large orchestra.

The orchestral forces required for Sawyers’ Fourth Symphony are large but rather less full than for Hommage to Kandinsky. Uniquely in this composer’s symphonic output to date, the work is cast in three movements. Disarmingly, he says in the booklet “by the time the third movement was complete, there was nothing more to say.” On the evidence of what I hear in this work, the fact that there was “nothing more to say” doesn’t imply for a second that Sawyers had run out of ideas, but I applaud him for not composing just for the sake of it. In any case, as we shall see, his finale makes a very satisfying conclusion.

I learned from Kenneth Woods’ notes that the home key of the first movement is B flat minor. Indeed, the note B flat is itself of no little importance. It is, in fact, the very first note that we hear: in an imposing opening gesture the note is sounded by low brass reinforced by bass drum and timpani. Equally important in this opening is melodic material in which semitones play a crucial role. The music that unfolds is dark-toned and often dramatic, with quite a lot of forceful writing for brass, timpani and bass drum. Eventually (3:42) a more tranquil episode arrives, initiated by strings and cool flutes. However, this proves to be short lived. Sawyers hereby establishes something of a pattern: there are brief passages of repose – another occurs at 5:11 – but these are brief and for the most part the music is at least uneasy, if not turbulent. Perhaps the most striking instance comes at 8:48 where a very short calm interlude is brutally dispelled by a forceful passage dominated by trumpets and timpani repeatedly hammering out the note of B flat. After so much musical drama the end of this gripping movement comes as something of a surprise: at 10:16 strings and a soft flute, followed by an oboe, lead us to an unexpectedly quiet close in which our old friend, the note B flat, is again important. If you don’t know the music of Philip Sawyers, I’d suggest that if you respond well to the later symphonies of Malcolm Arnold or the Fourth and Sixth symphonies of Vaughan Williams then you will find this movement, and indeed the symphony as a whole, very much to your taste.

In the composer’s words, the middle movement is “a ‘quicksilver’ affair”. It’s the shortest of the three and, as Kenneth Woods tells us, it develops material from the preceding movement. Much of the music is delicate and nimble, though there are a few brief forceful passages. In mid-movement there’s a Moderato section, where the energy relaxes somewhat. However, the music gathers pace again and the Presto resumes at 6:25. The helter-skelter ending is hectic and exciting.

Sawyers concludes with an Adagio, which is the longest movement. It begins, in the composer’s words, as “a funeral march in a solemn D minor”, the music hushed and tense. A simply-designed but poignant oboe solo (1:54) is followed by a gradual opening up to a big fortissimo statement by full orchestra. At 4:43 the flute, then the oboe followed by strings usher in a gentle but, to my ears, uneasy episode. After a short, strife-torn climax (7:14) we are finally granted the emotional release of a move to D major, but even here the music seems restless; in fact, I didn’t feel it ever settles emotionally. That is, not until 10:50 when repose is at last attained in the form of a softly-voiced, generous violin melody accompanied by warm but searching chords in the brass. The last two or three minutes of the movement strike me as a definite point of arrival. This is a considerable movement and it rounds off a most impressive symphony.

Here we have two significant and eloquent new works. Both display command of the orchestra and an imaginative mind at work. Both of these compositions require concentrated listening but they will reward the listener for his or her efforts. The more I hear of Philip Sawyers’ music, the more impressed I am. Here, he receives ideal advocacy from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, whose playing is expert and committed. In Kenneth Woods this composer clearly has a formidable champion; under his direction the performances exude conviction.

The recordings, made in the orchestra’s home hall in Cardiff, are excellent. The orchestral sound has impact and presence, and the engineers have achieved an impressive dynamic range and allow the details of Sawyers’ scoring to come through very well.

The musicians involved and Nimbus are to be congratulated on letting us hear these accessible and rewarding works which are the work of a composer who definitely has something worthwhile to say.

John Quinn

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