Symphony no.1 (2020)
Chamber Concerto: Portraits of Ned Kelly (1998)
English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Nimbus Alliance NI6432 [70’31’’]
Producers/Engineers Phil Rowlands, Tim Burton
Recorded 8 April 2021 (Chamber Concerto), 1-2 December 2021 (Symphony) at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
This latest release in the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Symphony Project features its most ambitious instalment yet in the First Symphony by Adrian Williams (b1956), coupled with a no less eventful piece by this ‘dark horse’ among British composers of his generation.
What’s the music like?
Although having written various orchestral works, Williams had never tackled the symphonic genre before prior to being the ESO’s John McCabe Composer-in-Association in 2019 (he is currently its Composer Emeritus) but has confronted the challenge head-on. Playing almost 50 minutes and scored for an orchestra including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets and four percussionists with harp, piano and celesta, the work is evidently a summation of where its composer felt he had reached over the course of his musical odyssey. Yet for all its textural complexity and its pervasive richness of thought, this is music created out of basic motifs; the initial three notes generating the first movement’s main themes, as well as essentializing that longer term tonal goal as remains a focal point towards which intervening activity is directed.
From its imposing Maestoso epigraph, the opening Stridente unfolds against the background of (without necessarily adhering to) sonata-form design – its motivic components drawn into a continuous and frequently combative evolution purposefully unresolved at the close. There follows a Scherzando that eschews ternary design for a through-composed format proceeding by tension and release to a decisive ending. The expressive crux of the whole work, the Lento evinces a plangent and desolate tone whose sparse textures and elliptical harmonies re-affirm that ‘less is more’ maxim. Despite its Energico marking the finale unfolds with slow-burning momentum, made the more cumulative by channelling its motivic evolution toward a Dolente apotheosis whose outcome proves as inevitable formally as it feels transcendent emotionally.
The artist Sidney Nolan was latterly a neighbour of Williams, his powerfully un-romanticized evocations of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly directly influencing this Chamber Concerto. Its pungent opening sets wind quintet against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. The inward central section builds towards a febrile culmination – after which, wind and strings are drawn into a monody which brings a resigned though hardly serene ending. A purposeful overall trajectory ensures cohesion at every stage.
Does it all work?
Absolutely. These are impressive piece in terms of their ambition but also realization. There are considerable technical challenges on route, but they are met with conviction and no little resourcefulness by an expanded ESO which is often tested but never fazed. Kenneth Woods directs with his customary attention to detail as goes a long way toward clarifying music that is ‘complex and luminous’ in spirit as by design. Williams has evidently been waiting for this opportunity to contribute to the symphonic tradition and his execution rarely, if ever, falters.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. The recording is as focussed and spacious as is necessary, and there are informative notes from composer and conductor. Next from this source is a release of concertos by Philip Sawyers, then one of symphonic works by the current Composer-in-Association Steve Elcock.
This recording is released on Friday 7 October 2022.
You can watch the world premiere of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1 on the English Symphony Orchestra website, and you can listen to clips from the recording at the Presto website. For more information on the composer, visit the Adrian Williams website – and for more on Sidney Nolan click here. Click on the names of Kenneth Woods and English Symphony Orchestra for their websites.