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Michael CSÁNYI-WILLS (b. 1975)
Symphony No. 1 (2019) [35.23]
Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra/Mark Eager
rec. 2020, Cardiff University Concert Hall, UK

I first encountered the music of Michael Csányi-Wills some seven years ago, when I reviewed for the Seen and Heard pages of this site the first performance of his Housman setting On the idle hill of summer given by the Welsh Sinfonia conducted by Mark Eager; I found the score to be both approachable and attractive, and welcomed the opportunity to make further acquaintance with the composer’s work over the succeeding years. Now he has ventured on his first symphony, written for the Cardiff University orchestra (again conducted by Mark Eager) and premičred last November; I was unfortunate enough to miss that first performance, and welcome the opportunity now to hear what I have little hesitation in proclaiming a major work.

Composers venturing on their first symphony are understandably nervous about facing the challenge posed by so many of their great predecessors, and Michael Csányi-Wills in an engagingly frank booklet note admits freely to experiencing such trepidation. In fact, as he reveals, the music emerged in an unexpected order: the third movement first, then the second, then the finale, with the opening movement coming last. This somewhat unorthodox procedure did however have some major advantages; not only was music from the second and third movements incorporated into the finale, but the introductory opening was able to prefigure the same material before it finally received its full statement. This not only assisted the music to achieve a stylistic and formal unity which can so easily elude the composers of first symphonies, but also solved some of the structural difficulties which can obtrude into long works consisting of disparate movements; it is surely no accident that so many symphonies nowadays adopt a single-movement structure in order to maintain integrity and momentum.

The composer was kind enough to provide me with a complete score of the music to guide me through the complexities of this structure, but for those listeners who rely upon the booklet notes it might perhaps be helpful to examine the individual movements in the order of their composition. The central slow movement, the composer acknowledges, is based in part upon a sarabande by Handel which formed part of his harpsichord suites; but I have to confess that, if I had not been told this, I would not have recognised its provenance. What we have here is an inward meditation upon the thematic material, which reflects the music by Michael Csányi-Wills with which I have become acquainted over the years; delicate woodwind filigree patterns adorn a slow-moving cantilena which rises to lyrical heights over a span of over twelve minutes, with an atmosphere not far removed from some of the chillier landscapes of Shostakovich. A similar Russian influence might perhaps be detected in the waltz-like dance of the second movement, but here it is the brasher and more vulgar overtones of Khachaturian that spring to mind. I call the tempo “waltz-like” because, although there is a clear three-four pulse strongly in evidence it is continually disrupted by bars in 5/8 and 7/8, elongating or truncating the rhythm, which at the same time sound quite natural in their context (in itself no mean feat) and add an unexpected spice to the whole.

Thematic material from both these movements finds its way into the finale, but the music is not literally repeated in the cyclical manner of Franck, Dvořák, Elgar, and so on. Instead it is transmogrified by contact with later material, with the opening of the movement taking a leaf out of Stravinsky’s Firebird with skirling chords reminiscent of Kaschei, and closing with a backward hint at the conclusion of The Rite of Spring. In a semi-triumphant apotheosis towards the end, the main theme from the second movement is declaimed in trenchant augmented 4/4 rhythm over a skirling background that looks on paper somewhat similar to the finale of Sibelius’s Second Symphony; but the appearances are deceptive, since the result is more nervously agitated, less triumphantly settled. Indeed the whole symphony has a balletic quality to it, rather in the same way as we find with Tchaikovsky; but that is not to say that it lacks internal logic and coherence. Csányi-Wills in his booklet note disclaims any programmatic intention, but it is not difficult in this passage to recognise his reaction to “a world sinking into a darker place in a rather sardonic dance-like fashion.”

The opening movement, with its indeterminate and tentative beginnings, has an almost Mahlerian sense of uncertainty – and the delicate chamber-like scoring which distinguishes Csányi-Wills’s handling of his large orchestral forces emphasises the similarity – but when it does get going it produces quite a head of momentum which looks forward to the later evolution of the material in a thoroughly satisfactory way. I must admit that on first hearing the apparent hesitations did not grab my attention until some two or three minutes into the movement, but on second hearing – when I could hear the music for the later movements which was being introduced for the first time – the impression was much more immediately involving. This, then, is a symphony which I suspect will work better for many listeners if they listen to it twice; and of course, the medium of a recording makes this a thoroughly practical proposition.

I have mentioned already that Michael Csányi-Wills has fully exploited the resources of a romantic symphony orchestra, even adding some extra instrumental forces (no fewer than four flutes plus two piccolos) but tempering these demands by his delicate scoring which highlight the contrasts between the timbres of different sections of the orchestra. Mark Eager obtains superlative results from his players. A couple of years ago I remarked upon the high standards of this student orchestra displayed on a CD including a number of Debussy premičres; here, with a body of players who presumably would have included very few if any of the players participating in that earlier recording, the conductor still manages to get thoroughly engaged and engaging results from his large student body. There is perhaps a slight sense of under-manning in the string section (with only three double-basses, for example) where some high-lying string cantilenas are overpowered by the sheer force of the wind playing; but these are minor concerns (I might not even have been aware of them without the score in front of me) and the composer himself, acting as his own producer, appears to have carefully arranged the balances to obviate them. The recorded acoustic in the resonant hall at Cardiff University (built during the tenure of Alun Hoddinott as professor) can sometimes be overwhelming in live performance – as indeed can that of the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff Bay – but the engineering here avoids any sense of overload. It is ironic that the concert hall in Cardiff with the best acoustic, the Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, although its merits are acknowledged by the BBC as a venue both for Cardiff Singer of the World and Young Musician competitions, is so little used as a recording venue.

There is, however, one potential drawback with this enterprising and overwhelmingly welcome issue, and that revolves around the sometimes vexed issue of playing time. The symphony lasts only some 35 minutes, and there would have plenty of room to include further items. Mark Eager’s own booklet note specifically makes reference to the composer’s score Seagull Nebula, which I reviewed when it was given in the Dora Stoutzker Hall by the Welsh Sinfonia under his baton in 2014 and which thoroughly deserves a recording. On the other hand this CD and its download are being offered at half price, so prospective purchasers need not feel that they are being offered short measure in any way. The CD is packaged in exactly the same way as a full-price issue from this source, with the booklet and disc in a gatefold sleeve with a most attractive cover design featuring a painting by Nunziatina del Vecchio. Anybody who has discovered the music of Michael Csányi-Wills from the 2016 Toccata CD of his orchestral songs (which I welcomed in a review for this site, and which still remains available) will need no encouragement to investigate his first essay in the symphonic medium; others should feel emboldened to investigate, at what is after all a relatively bargain price.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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