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
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, theartsdesk.com
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.
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.
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.
"David DeBoor Canfield first reviewed music by Philip Sawyers in Fanfare 35:2, writing positively about Sawyers’s First Symphony and other shorter works. Robert Maxham enthused about two violin sonatas in 37:5, and Phillip Scott found a great deal to admire in the Second Symphony and Cello Concerto (39:1). This is a bandwagon I am happy to join.
Although the 38-minute Symphony No. 3 is the main work on this disc, the initial strongest impression was made by the Songs of Loss and Regret, a 2013 cycle of eight songs set to poems of A. E. Houseman, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Gray, William Morris, with one text drawn from the Apocrypha. The cycle is 24 minutes long, and profoundly moving, especially in these beautifully sung performances by April Frederick. Scored for soprano and string orchestra, they inhabit a musical landscape somewhere between Strauss, Mahler, and Berg. “Futility,” set to a text by Wilfred Owen that Britten used in the War Requiem, is stunning in its impact. This cycle should develop a life in the concert hall, occupying the same place on symphonic programs currently filled with Berg’s Seven Early Songs, or perhaps Mahler songs.
The Third Symphony took me a few more hearings to embrace. It is denser, more harmonically adventurous, and more complex than the songs (or than the first two symphonies, for that matter). There are some clear influences to be heard (the Adagio begins as does the finale of Mahler’s Ninth, to give one obvious example), but it would be unfair to say that this sounds like anyone else. It seems to be a symphony about struggle, with tension running very high in a dramatic first movement followed by an intensely personal Adagio that is the centerpiece (and the longest movement). After its Mahlerian opening, this slow movement seems to move in the direction of resistance to the turbulence of today’s world but ultimately, not unlike Mahler’s Ninth, a sense of resignation. However, whereas in Mahler’s case that is the last movement, here it is the second of four, and the struggle resumes in the last two, nervously in the third, dramatically in the fourth. Conductor Kenneth Woods, in his excellent notes, points out the sense of triumph, or victory, that is hard fought but ultimately comes in the end. The performance, as one would expect from the conductor to whom it is dedicated, is impassioned and very well played and recorded. This is a work that rewards repeated and attentive hearings.
Fanfare is just what you would expect from the title: an almost-four-minute fanfare featuring the brass. It has more substance and musical development than many fanfares, and would make a terrific concert opener on a symphonic program.
This disc will provide satisfaction to adventurous listeners with a sense of curiosity and willingness to explore the new and unfamiliar. I have returned to it quite a few times and found growing pleasure in the experience."- Henry Fogel
Although English composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) has been around for a good many years, he is probably not yet a household name. Indeed, his major fame has no doubt come from the Nimbus recordings of his works conducted by Kenneth Woods, with three records now available with four different orchestras. In 2015 the English Symphony Orchestra, of which Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, appointed Sawyers their John McCabe Composer in Association, with various commissions including a song cycle, a trumpet concerto, and the Third Symphony that we find on the present disc.
Still, as his Web site informs us, "Sawyers's works have been performed and broadcast in many countries worldwide including the USA, Canada, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic, France and UK. Music-web International described the Nimbus Alliance CD of Sawyers's orchestral work as 'music of instant appeal and enduring quality.' Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source described the premiere of the Second Symphony by the London Mozart Players as a "deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic… one of the finest new symphonies by a British composer I have heard in years…'" High praise for a fellow who, as the Web site continues to note, "began composing as a teenager, shortly after picking up the violin for the first time at the age of 13. However, it has only been in the last few years that his talent has begun to be recognised with major commissions and performances by orchestras in the USA and frequent performances in Europe."
Thus, we come to the Symphony No. 3 and its accompanying pieces on the album under review. Maestro Woods says the programme "reveals Philip Sawyers as a composer at the height of his powers whose music ranges across a relatively wide spectrum of harmonic intensity." Of the Third Symphony, Woods says it "stands very much in the tradition of the great 'darkness to light' symphonies, including Beethoven's 5th, Bruckner's 8th, Brahms' 1st and Shostakovich's 5th." Imposing company, indeed.
Woods goes on to say, "This is turbulent music for a turbulent era, its defiant ending all the more hopeful for being so hard-won. In this respect, I believe this symphony marks a powerful and badly-needed renewal of the symphony as an expression of universal hope and personal will, an archetype which may reach back to Beethoven's iconic Fifth, but the message of which is more relevant than ever.
The Third Symphony exhibits all the hallmarks of modern music, meaning you may not go away humming any memorable tunes, yet it's all quite accessible, even for a Neanderthal like me. The opening movement establishes a dark tone, powerful, with continuing tensions throughout. That is to say, this is the way Woods approaches it, and I assume this was the composer's intention. Without any other recorded interpretations with which to compare it, we have to accept Woods's performance as authoritative, at least for now.
A longing Adagio provides a moment's respite, although even here we notice a good degree of underlying pressure that builds over the course of the movement. But eventually it settles into what Woods calls "a fragile calm." A brief intermezzo follows, which appears at first blush wholly unrelated to anything that went before it, being rather light and fanciful in nature. Then we get a finale that storms onto the scene in rowdy fashion, negotiates its way through a series of themes, both tumultuous and gentle, before ending on what seems like a note of hope, perhaps triumph. It's all a tad disconcerting at first listen, but there's no question its shifting moods do make for a pleasurable experience.
Next on the agenda is the 2015 song-cycle Songs of Loss and Regret, a cycle commissioned to mark the centenary outbreak of World War One, the text of which includes lines from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad," Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break," Wilfred Owen's "Futility," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the Apocrypha's "Wisdom of Solomon," and William Morris's "The Earthly Paradise." Soprano April Fredrick sings the vocals with Woods and the English String Orchestra, the whole thing enjoyably moving.
The final track is Sawyers's Fanfare (2016), in which the composer tells us he set out to write not another short work "to mark some state or royal occasion" but a "memorable and substantial concert piece." Well, short it is (under four minutes) but substantial it surely is, too, of its kind. Woods is not afraid to let the guns loose, and more power to him.
Producer, engineer, and editor Simon Fox-Gal recorded the Symphony No. 3 and Fanfare at Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England in February 2017 and the Songs of Loss and Regret at Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, England in October 2017. Nimbus Records have always produced natural-sounding recordings, so it's no surprise this one sounds so realistic. The engineers are more into room ambiance and warm reverberations than ultra-close, clinical accuracy, and more's the better for it. In this case, the big orchestral parts come off with power and authority while still admitting a good deal of detail and clarity. Dynamics and frequency range are strong and wide, stage width is appropriate to the recording's moderately distanced perspective, and stage depth is more than acceptable. Moreover, the solo voice sounds equally lifelike, without a hint of brightness or edge. Very pleasant stuff.
"Philip Sawyers’s Third Symphony (2015) is undoubtedly one of the finest British symphonies of recent years. It was premiered for this recording in February this year and repeated at a memorable concert at St John’s Smith Square a few days later, as part of the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st-Century Symphonies programme.
The design is relatively conventional, four movements with scherzo placed third (as in No 1; 2/11) unlike the compelling single-span Second (10/14). The long, visionary Adagio is its emotional heart, music of searing intensity, yet the expressive fulcrum lies rather in the Arnold-like Intermezzo, full of disarming charm and gentle humour, adjusting the context of the whole.
The impact is overwhelming, on a par with Pickard’s fifth (BIS, A/17) or David Matthews’s Seventh (Dutton, 6/14)- Matthews’s Ninth is next on the ESO’s list. The performance is terrific and terrifically committed, superbly marshalled by Kenneth Woods.
The eight Songs of Loss and Regret (2013) commemorating the centenary of the First World War and the victims of its carnage are movingly sung by April Frederick (fresh from her triumph as Joubert’s Jane Eyre) and just as movingly accomplished by the ESO strings. The fifth song ‘Futility’ serves to mark Sawyers’s stature as a composer; the same Owen sonnet as memorably set by Britten in the War Requiem, I aver that Sawyers’s is the profounder of the two.
Finally comes the meaty Fanfare (2016) – really a motet for orchestral brass. Great music, great performances and great sound from Nimbus, engineered by Simon Fox-Gál."