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."
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: