Sawyers: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Hommage to Kandinsky. Kenneth Woods, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Nimbus Alliance NI 6405.

It may seem to the casual observer that conductor Kenneth Woods is championing mainly lesser-known modern composers in his recordings. This is probably because Maestro Woods really is championing lesser-known modern composers in his recordings. Hans Gal, Christopher Gunning, John Joubert, Ernst Krenek, David Matthews, and Philip Sawyers are not exactly household names except among the most-dedicated classical music enthusiasts. Yet these are some of the people Woods has been recording. Am I complaining? Certainly not, because these composers have one thing in common: They all write real music instead of random noise, and I think Woods appreciates that, as we should.

This time out, we have British composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) and his latest symphony, No. 4, written in 2018, conducted by Woods leading the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. I had the pleasure of reviewing Woods's previous two recordings of works by Sawyers, the Symphony No. 3 and the Violin Concerto, and enjoyed them both. So there was no reason for me to dislike the Symphony No. 4. It may not be Beethoven, but it beats a lot of what passes for music these days.

Sawyers wrote his Fourth Symphony in only three movements, which is right away a bit untraditional. Yet most of the music is squarely in a traditional or conventional vein. In fact, Sawyers has admitted that his music was "distinctly out of fashion" for much of the twentieth century. It's no surprise; he still appears to believe in things like melody, tonality, harmony, and rhythm, things that have largely gone out of favor in much modern music. So, why three movements? Sawyers says that by the time he finished the third movement, he had nothing more to say. Fair enough; quit while you're ahead.

Kenneth Woods
The first movement is dramatic and serene by turns. Certainly, the drama starts with the opening notes, which would have made Beethoven proud. It goes on with a whole series of contrasting outbursts, which Maestro Woods seems to relish. While it's all fairly dark in mood, even during its calmer stretches, it keeps the listener on his toes, wondering what's coming next. By the time the movement finishes, it appears downright combative, as Woods himself admits in the booklet notes.

The second movement is a scherzo, as though we needed more commotion. Yet it's light and playful, as most good scherzos are. The composer calls it "a quicksilver affair," and it surely sounds mercurial and impulsive. But it's also the most delightful section of the piece, with Woods unafraid to extract all the color he can from it.

The final movement is the most rhapsodic of the lot, its melodies the most pronounced and emphatic. It's a slow Adagio that begins as a kind of funeral march, moves on to more robust themes, and dissolves into a tranquil vein, with a resplendent final outburst. Memorable? Perhaps not, but only time will tell. Fun? Entertaining? Meaningful in the moment? To be sure.

The accompanying work is titled Hommage to Kandinsky, which Sawyers calls "a symphonic poem for orchestra," written as a commission from the Grand Rapids Symphony in 2014. The inspiration for the music was a 2006 exhibition the composer attended of paintings by Russian abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky (1868-1944). Still, these are not literal responses to the paintings as, say, Mussorksky's were in Pictures at an Exhibition. They are, as Sawyers explains, primarily "an emotional response to Kandinsky's work." Abstract music responding to abstract paintings, so to speak. I rather enjoyed this sequence of five movements, at least as much as Sawyers's new symphony. It's quite lovely, and Woods and the players in his charge perform it in lovely fashion. I do wish Nimbus had provided separate tracks for the piece, though, even if I can understand their wanting to encourage the listener to view the music as a unified whole

Producer Simon Fox-Gal and engineer Simon Smith recorded the music at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales in January 2020. As always, Nimbus produces a realistic sounding disc, with plenty of depth and breadth and ambience. Detailing is good, too, as well as dynamics. It's a fine, smooth, balanced presentation that may not be entirely audiophile but is pleasing, nonetheless.


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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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