Sawyers: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Trumpet Concerto; Valley of Vision; Elegiac Rhapsody. Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin; Simon Desbruslais, trumpet; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra, English String Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6374.

British composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) has found some of his major fame no doubt from the Nimbus recordings of his works conducted by Kenneth Woods, with four discs now available. 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, the violin and trumpet concertos found here, and several symphonies, of which I reviewed the Third a year or so ago.

Sawyers's Web site informs us that his "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 his orchestral work as "music of instant appeal and enduring quality."

So, on the present disc we get two longer Sawyers pieces of almost thirty minutes each and two slightly shorter pieces. It seems to be a good representation of the man's output, which runs high to somewhat dark, moody, sorrowful, yet completely accessible, never sad tunes.

The program begins with the Violin Concerto, completed in 2016, with violin solo by Alexander Sitkovetsky and accompanied by Maestro Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. Sawyers is also a violinist, and when Woods suggested he do a violin concerto, he jumped at the opportunity. The piece opens with a theme from Sawyers's Third Symphony, so it may sound familiar. To be honest, though, as I said above, Sawyers's music often appears dark and moody to me, so it all tends to sound familiar.

Anyway, the violin dominates the proceedings, as expected, alternating agitated solo passages with tempestuous dialogues with the orchestra. Woods has a good instinct for where the soloist is going, too, and the two work seamlessly together. The opening movement ends calmly, leading into a melodically reflective Andante touched by melancholy. Again, the violin towers above the orchestra, sounding ever more unsettled as the music moves along, reaching a final movement that is surprisingly playful. Sawyers describes it as all "hustle and bustle" and tells Woods "the violin is my instrument, and if it didn't make me happy, it will have been a bit of a waste to have played it my whole life." It's all quite attractive, with Mr. Sitkovetsky playing brilliantly and Woods and the English Symphony supporting him with conviction.

Alexander Sitkovetsky
Next, we get The Valley of Vision from 2017. It is Sawyers's musical response to some of the paintings of English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), which themselves represented the countryside around Palmer's home in Shoreham, Kent. Sawyers tells us he did not intend for the five sections of the work to be programmatic but, instead, I guess more impressionistic. Here, Sawyers sounds more than ever like the English pastoral composers of the previous century--Arnold Bax, perhaps, Frank Bridge, Frederick Delius, Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the like. In any case, the music is lovely and evocative.

And so it goes with the Concerto for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani (2015), with trumpet solo by Simon Desbruslais and accompaniment by Woods and the English String Orchestra (the English Symphony Orchestra began as the English String Orchestra in 1978, and as their repertoire expanded the orchestra grew larger and today performs under both appellations as the occasion demands). As one might expect for a combination of trumpet and timpani, the music is more dramatic, more martial, and more aggressively rhythmic than anything else on the program. Still, there's a charming central movement that is both lyric and ardent. Certainly, it is well performed by everyone involved, yet it failed to affect me the way the violin concerto did, perhaps because of its blunter edges.

The agenda concludes with the Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings (2016), performed by Desbruslais, Woods, and the English String Orchestra. The work's title aptly describes its content, the work commissioned as a remembrance of the death of British composer and pianist John McCabe (1939-2015). Although on a more somber level, this final piece sounds almost like a continuation of Sawyers's trumpet concerto and could probably have as well served as the slow movement. Whatever, it is a radiant tribute to McCabe, performed with discernable compassion.

Producer, editor, and engineer Simon Fox-Gal recorded the first four tracks at Hereford Shirehall in February 2018; producer, editor, and engineer Adam Binks recorded tracks five through eight at the Church of St. George's, Worcester in October 2017. The folks at Nimbus have always produced good sounding recordings, and this one continues the pattern. It seems a tad closer than most of their work, especially the solos, but it delivers excellent clarity, with a fine sense of depth and space. Detailing is fine as well, accompanied by a realistic but not overpowering dynamic range and impact.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa