In praise of Philip Sawyers’s Violin Concerto

Written by: Adrian Williams

Philip Sawyers

Hereford is not the first place one thinks of as a platform for new music, except every three years at the Three Choirs Festival or annually at nearby Presteigne. Yet on Sunday February 25 at the Shirehall there was the world premiere of the Violin Concerto by Philip Sawyers, currently John McCabe Composer-in-Association with the English Symphony Orchestra, joined by Alexander Sitkovetsky and conducted by Kenneth Woods. Sawyers (born 1951) is largely self-taught and firmly in the English tradition of unsung heroes like Edmund Rubbra and Alan Rawsthorne.

Sawyers’s Violin Concerto has moments of breathtaking intensity, especially the deeply melancholic slow movement. Anyone familiar with his music, notably the celebrated Third Symphony, will be immediately aware of his individual voice at the exquisitely lyrical opening of the first movement, the violin suspended magically on a high E, which heralds something mighty and tumultuous, and the Finale is a tour de force as much for the orchestra as the soloist.

Sitkovetsky was hugely at home, bringing colour, warmth and insight to his performance as well as dazzling virtuosity, and the ESO was equally impressive, a tribute to Woods’s inspiring and rejuvenating tenure. Sawyers’s Violin Concerto (heard here between Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Schumann’s Second Symphony) will surely find its way into the repertoire and is to be released by Nimbus later this year.

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