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Philip SAWYERS (b.1951)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Symphony No 3 (2015) [38.31]
Fanfare (2004) [3.47]
Songs of Loss and Regret (2014) [24.06]
April Frederick (soprano)
English String Orchestra (songs), English Symphony Orchestra (symphony, fanfare)/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2015, Hereford Cathedral (songs), 2017, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouthshire (symphony)
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6353 [66.54]

There are three works presented here, curiously ending with a Fanfare, which you might like to hear first, but including a fine symphony. The Fanfare is for brass only, as you might expect, and is quite unusually lengthy and developed having been written to a commission from Kenneth Woods who conducts not only on this disc but on the previous disc of Sawyers works that is the 2nd Symphony (NI 6281 - reviews) coupled with the Cello Concerto. There is also 1st Symphony (NI6129 - reviews).

For myself I am coming to Philip Sawyers for the first time and glad to do so and I cannot help but admire the enterprise of Nimbus Records in presenting this music to us from a composer who has not been overly prolific and has spent much of his musical life playing as a violinist in the Royal Opera House Orchestra and examining for the ABRSM.

So, cutting to the chase what about this four movement Symphony No 3? It can be very revealing to hear how a composer, with an insider’s view of the orchestra, like contrasting figures such as Nielsen or Skalkottas, handle the ‘instrument’ that is the hundred-piece symphony orchestra. Sometimes total convention takes over, sometimes fascinating effects and unusual colours are confidently communicated. But Sawyers is not interested in those “fripperies (!)”; he believes that ideas grow organically and his main interest is a traditional one in many ways, that is the use of keys as a structure and a tension therefore being built through tonal relationships and conflict. In that he reminds me of Robert Simpson, though Sawyers is much more concise. In addition, Sawyers uses a personal type of serial technique, which has a pull towards a particular tonality, in the case of this work a G, which often fights with a largely unresolved Ab. A third element is the emotional content which results and also which is imposed with impressive climaxes and powerful orchestration. This is especially noticeable in the second movement, marked Adagio, which for half its course is almost in the midst of an emotional crisis but which calms down and fades into the most moving music of the symphony. The first movement had begun with cello’s announcing the tone row, the second begins with an enigmatic rising scale in the violins, the third begins with a whimsical woodwind idea of, I must admit, rather unnerving charm. And here we can talk about orchestral colour although always at the service of the material employed.

If some of this reminds you of Malcolm Arnold then the way the finale bursts in will also do so. This movement layers a tone row, similar to one in the first movement, against a chorale theme, which later appears in D major; there is also complex counterpoint resulting a central tumultuous fugue which follows through the famous ‘cycle of fifths’. Kenneth Woods in his fascinatingly detailed notes presses the point that this is a ‘darkness into light’ symphony as is Beethoven’s 5th. I’m not so sure whether the final hectic bars really offer such a resolution either emotionally or musically, but I have no reservations in pronouncing this a very fine work indeed and one which deserves a place in the any orchestra’s repertoire.

Whereas the language of the symphony could be described as ‘pan-European’ the musical language of the song-cycle Songs of Loss and Regret might well be described as English. Why is this? Perhaps its because it was commissioned to “mark in some way the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1” (Composer’s booklet note) and therefore sets poets like Housman, Wilfred Owen and Thomas Gray. Or perhaps it’s the scoring for just string orchestra, (originally piano) setting the work in the world of Vaughan-Williams, Elgar or Howells. Or perhaps it’s the strong modality of the melodies, noticed particularly in the setting of Owen’s famous ‘Futility’, and most of the harmonic language. The cadences, as the composer admits, often fall or end on an open 5th. It is of course a combination of all these things and the eight poems form one almost symphonic mood which is though, mostly sombre with only a slight lifting of the tempo in the Tennyson setting (Movement 4 ‘Break, break, Break on the cold grey stone’).

All the texts are supplied but you hardly need them as April Frederick’s diction and the wonderfully clear acoustic of Hereford Cathedral make them practically redundant. Throughout the CD the utter commitment of the English Symphony and String orchestra and even more that of Kenneth Woods who obviously loves and admires this music is clear and in the song-cycle Frederick’s gives not only a technically adroit performance but also a passionate one.

There is an extensive booklet note by Kenneth Woods with a contribution from the composer and I can’t help but recommend this disc to all, but I also hope deeply that Philip Sawyers is not another of our fine English composers who, in the words of the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, (used in the seventh song of the cycle), is one whose “name is forgotten in time/And no man shall have our works in remembrance”.

Gary Higginson

 

 




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