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Philip Sawyers: Symphony No.3, Song of Loss and Regret & Fanfare



‘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.’ Philip Sawyers

This programme reveals Philip Sawyers as a composer at the height of his powers whose music ranges across a relatively wide spectrum of harmonic intensity, from the very direct and straightforward tonal language of the Fanfare to the twelve-tone pyrotechnics of the Third Symphony. However, regardless of whether we look to the modal harmonies of Songs of Loss and Regret or the multi-layered serial counterpoint of the finale of the Third Symphony, we still find a unifying sense of a strong and individual artistic personality. Kenneth Woods

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No.3, Song of Loss and Regret & Fanfare


John Wilson's recent Richard Rodney Bennett compilation came to mind when listening to Philip Sawyers’ overwhelming Symphony No. 3, Sawyers sharing with Bennett the ability to blend astringent dodecaphony and tonality to potent effect. Sawyers’ Third dates from 2015, its four movements moving from brooding gloom to an unsentimental, positive close. It's a gripping listen, Sawyers’ style notable for its lyricism, even when he's in full-on Schoenberg mode. Take the symphony's ear-stretching “Adagio”, its angular string leaps and fulsome scoring paying homage to Bruckner and Mahler. There are also nods to English pastoralism, though the mixture never sounds like naff pastiche. Sawyers’ quirksome third movement intermezzo is unexpected and engaging, and the way in which a tonal brass chorale is incorporated into a largely serial finale is ingenious in the extreme. This isn't a glib journey from darkness to light, the music’s emotional power such that you rarely reflect on whether Sawyers is writing tonally or not. Terrifically played too, by dedicatee Ken Woods and his gallant English Symphony Orchestra. Wood’s sleeve notes, outlining movement by movement what's going on in the piece, are lucid and eloquent.

Sawyers’ Songs of Loss and Regret is a cycle of eight songs composed to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, here heard in an arrangement for strings and soprano. Poems by Housman and Owen feature: the latter's Futility was also set by Britten in his War Requiem, of course, and Sawyers’ version doesn't suffer by comparison, the whole sequence an understated, poignant delight, beautifully sung by April Fredrick. Sawyers’ magnificently brassy Fanfare closes the disc. It's fun, but the massed trumpets come as a bit of a shock after the song cycle’s parched, spare close. Good sleeve art and rich recording too – well worth investigating.

Graham Rickson,

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.

This is Sawyers’ longest symphony to date. 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 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 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. 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.

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. 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.

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, MusicWeb-International