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.
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: