Philip Sawyers
Cello Concerto
Symphony No.2
Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings
Maja Bogdanovic (cello)

Steinberg Duo [Louisa Stonehill (violin) & Nicholas Burns (piano)]

Orchestra of the Swan
Kenneth Woods

Recorded 14-15 May 2013, Civic Hall, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
CD No: NIMBUS ALLIANCE
NI 6281
Duration: 60 minutes
Reviewed: August 2014

A previous Nimbus release of Philip Sawyers’s music (NI 6129), including his First Symphony and Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass, impressed, and I very much hope that both records will ensure the acceptance of Sawyers as one of the most gifted of composers. Sawyers was born in London in 1951 and for 24 years was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra. He thus has that inestimable advantage for a composer of being a professional executant (literally to his fingertips), a background which sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. He knows, in his orchestral music, what ‘works’ from the inside, and how best – having played under some great conductors as a violinist – his music should be realised. This places him on the same level, in terms of practical experience, of – say – Carl Nielsen, Bohuslav Martinů and Paul Hindemith, and if you like their music you’ll like that of Sawyers (although it’s quite different). Sawyers studied composition with, among others, Buxton Orr and Edmund Rubbra.

Much of Sawyers’s work is relatively recent, but, without the backing of a world-wide publishing house (as is also the case with a number of his talented British contemporaries), Sawyers has been quietly building a growing reputation. His music is modern, but of a modernity remarkably free from what, in George Bernard Shaw’s words, may be described as “professional pedantry, deliberate imitation, claptrap, padding and vulgarity”, or – to bring it slightly more up to date, for the problem is eternal – as Richard Rodney Bennett stated in an interview with Richard Stoker in Composer magazine in 1971: “I think young composers in America are in a state of shock almost ... they just write a kind of grey, atonal music which I dislike intensely ... I found it rather depressing that ... quite a lot of young people should have opted for one thing to the exclusion of everything else.”

If you feel the same way, prepare to shed those feelings with regard to Sawyers’s compositions: they speak naturally, seriously, but by no means doggedly; his music is emotionally direct and always involving the intelligent listener. This is the kind of music for which many people have been secretly hoping for years. The First Symphony (commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 75th-anniversary) is a superb work, in four movements, wonderfully orchestrated, sensitive, powerful and memorable. We’ll come to the Second Symphony in a moment, but on this current disc I began with the Concertante (2006), the shortest work here at eleven minutes and calling for the fewest number of players. It is a magnificent composition, in the line of a single-movement three-sectioned combination of emotional power and relaxation, drama and contemplation, superbly expressed within an underlying and unifying pulse. The music is immediately intriguing and concerned entirely with development. The preparation for the central slower section is wonderfully achieved, growing quietly (and wholly organically) from the previous concluding bars, it builds to a genuine and powerful climax before morphing into the faster third section – a true ‘coming together’ of the material.

Not the least important aspect of this release is the excellent booklet note by Kenneth Woods, who writes apropos of this work: “[it is]a wonderful example of a work written somewhat ‘to order’ which still manages to encapsulate all that is so compelling and rewarding about his music ... I love the way in which a work that could have ended up ‘modest’ in all the wrong ways packs such a powerful emotional punch.” Having been deeply impressed with Sawyers’s First Symphony, I ought not to have been surprised by the sheer fearlessness and directness of expression of the Second (2008), the work of a musician who is communicative, intelligent and unfailingly musical at all times within a very wide expressive range. There are no miscalculations in this work: it is a genuine Symphony, such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Schoenberg and Shostakovich would instantly have recognised, and in no sense is it ‘old-fashioned’ – the concept of ‘fashion’ in music is as unacceptable to Sawyers as it was to those earlier masters. Power, strength and expressive range are here a-plenty, and the continuous flow of the music is gripping, travelling this way and that, but at all times utterly well-paced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that it is written for exactly the same-sized orchestra that Beethoven calls for in his Seventh Symphony, eminently playable, lying under the fingers and totally rewarding.

Sawyers’s Cello Concerto (2010) was written for Maja Bogdanovic, and is also eminently serious and immensely impressive. From the first bars, the listener’s attention is gripped as one follows the argument, growing from the beautiful initial theme; the second movement is further proof of this composer’s quality – it is contemplative, but possessing a genuine sense of inner momentum: this is not one idea following another, but revealing a flow such as one finds in the slow movements of Brahms’s larger structures. It leads to a central faster section full of “anger and tension” (as Woods well says) but handled with complete assurance as the music returns to the mood of the opening, subsumed and at peace. The somewhat unpredictable finale sheds fresh light on this composer’s outlook: “I’ve come to absolutely love it”, says Woods – and one hopes that many more will share the experience.

The performances are totally committed and the recording quality is really fine. This is the kind of music that gives one hope for the future of our art.

 

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