No. 3. Songs of Loss and Regret.
Nimbus 6365 (66:54)
Philip Sawyers’s Third Symphony is a major new work
from a distinctive voice in British music. Sawyers was formerly a violinist in
the Royal Opera Orchestra, but has been a full-time composer since 1997. His
music has been championed by the Nimbus label, and by Kenneth Woods and the
English Symphony Orchestra; orchestra and conductor have previously recorded
the Second Symphony for the same label (with the First also available,
performed by David Lockington and the Grand Rapids Symphony). Sawyers is
currently John McCabe Composer in Association with the English Symphony, so
expect further collaborations.
Symphony was an English Symphony Orchestra commission, and Kenneth Woods
encouraged Sawyers to expand his orchestral palette, from the Mozart-sized
orchestra of the Second Symphony, to a larger ensemble. Sawyers has risen to
the challenge, producing a 40-minute work on an impressively grand scale, with
the large brass and woodwind sections well-integrated into the music’s
conception. Sawyers is clearly a product of the 20th-century English symphonic
tradition, with Robert Simpson and Havergal Brian obvious predecessors. Like
Simpson, Sawyers combines elements of Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen—the
Sibelius most apparent in the recourse to weighty bass pedals, the Nielsen in
the sprightly third-movement Intermezzo. But Sawyers also leans towards Mahler,
particularly in his Adagio second
movement, which opens with what almost sounds like a quote from the Ninth
Symphony, a swooping upward octave in the violins, though it soon goes its own
way. Technically, the music is a mix of post-Romantic harmony and serial technique.
The first movement opens with a 12-tone theme, which is rigorously developed,
although elsewhere shorter motifs are subject to similar manipulations, and
within a broadly tonal context, so more Brahms than Schoenberg. The upbeat
finale owes more than a little to Walton’s First, not least the plaintive
trumpet solo mid-way, and also the affirmative closing gestures. But all these
influences are well-integrated into a work of impressive symphonic unity and
I was at the premiere of the symphony, by the same
forces at St. John’s Smith Square in February 2017, a well-attended and
well-received performance. It was billed as the first in a series entitled The 21st Century Symphony Project. The
project is headed by Kenneth Woods, who plans to commission and perform nine
new symphonies over the coming years, and already has David Matthew’s Ninth penciled
in for the spring of 2018. Given the conductor’s zeal, a commercial recording
of that is a fair bet.
This recording is not of the premiere, it was made in
the studio (Wyastone) shortly before—yet another indicator of the care with
which Woods prepares his projects. The performance is good, with Woods finding
all the drama in the music, but without laboring the sometimes terse tuttis.
The English Symphony Orchestra could do with a few more desks of strings—though
it is a financial miracle that the recording happened at all, so that’s a minor
grumble. The lower brass and timpani sound a little recessed, which I’m inclined
to blame on the recording, as they sounded fine live. Otherwise, this recording
does the new symphony proud.
The program continues with a song cycle, Songs of Loss and Regret, and a Fanfare,
both of which were also performed at SJSS, the Fanfare written specially for
the event. Both are in a more openly diatonic style, the song cycle pastoral,
perhaps, although its bleak string textures again tending toward Nordic models.
The big draw here is April Fredrick, a young and versatile soprano who has
worked extensively with Woods and the English Symphony (she sings the title
role in their recording of John Joubert’s Jane
Eyre, Somm 263-2, another very impressive premiere on disc). Sawyers makes
emphatic use of his texts, poems from Housman, Tennyson, and others, and Fredrick
clearly intones every line, her distinctively English tone and accent proving
The Fanfare is an occasional piece, which worked well
at the premiere, where the brass choirs where positioned antiphonally on
transept balconies. It is little more than filler here, but a welcome filler nonetheless.
All round, then, an excellent introduction for Philip
Sawyers’s new symphony, and for Kenneth Woods’s commissioning project. The mind
boggles at the financial challenges such undertakings must face, but the
English Symphonic Tradition seems to have many passionate advocates, not least
the record label, conductor, and orchestra presented here. Its future looks
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:3.