Symphony no.4 (2018)
Hommage to Kandinsky (2014)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Kenneth Woods
Nimbus Alliance NI6405 [64’32”]
Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox
Recorded 15 & 16 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Nimbus continues its coverage of Philip Sawyers (b1951) with this release of his most recent symphony, heard alongside a major symphonic poem written some years earlier, in what are impressively assured readings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods.
What’s the music like?
The emergence of Sawyers as a major symphonist of his generation has been among the more significant aspects of latter-day British music. From the overtly demonstrative First Symphony (2004), via the highly concentrated Second (2008) to the decidedly equivocal Third (2015), is to encounter a composer intent on expanding his idiom incrementally and without any fear of repeating himself. Hence the Fourth Symphony, whose three movements might be felt to take on the (unintentional) model of Bruckner’s Ninth from a distinctly contemporary perspective.
Such is immediately clear from the opening Moderato whose tonal ambivalence underpins an emotional restlessness set in motion by those granitic brass chords at the outset. Formally this is Sawyers’ most individual sonata design to date, its accrued tension duly carrying over into a scherzo with passing elements of intermezzo rather than an actual trio as ensures maximum continuity. There follows an extended Adagio of tangible weight and no little profundity, its focus ensured through a long-term transition from D minor to D accomplished as seamlessly as its incorporation of motifs from earlier in the score. Sawyers says that after this ‘‘there was nothing more to say’’, reinforced by a sustained apotheosis which resolves those chords from the outset with a finality only viable for a composer in command of his musical components.
Little that Sawyers writes is without symphonic potential, as is evident from his Hommage to Kandinsky. Scored for large forces and lasting almost 30 minutes, its subtitle A Symphonic Poem for Orchestra indicates this is no mere evoking of the Russian-born artist’s canvasses – though one aspect of his Composition IV has been transmuted into musical terms towards the start. Structurally the piece unfolds through alternating passages of relative stasis and motion, and if slower sections predominate as it progresses, there is never a risk of expressive inertia owing to the deftness with which existing motifs take on greater intensity while timbral and textural aspects are enriched accordingly. This latter aspect is crystallized at the close when an emphatic chordal cluster gradually dies down, to leave only the purest of C major tones.
Does it all work?
Yes, not least when this release judiciously combines two of Sawyers’ most distinctive and absorbing pieces. Never a composer who could be accused of favouring the easy option, his large-scale organization is, in both instances, as fascinating as it is resourceful. It helps when Kenneth Woods, who premiered Sawyers’ previous two symphonies (the Third as the initial commission of his 21st Century Symphony Project), is unstinting in his advocacy – securing playing of verve and finesse from the BBC NOW in the spacious ambience of Hoddinott Hall.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. The annotations deftly interlace Woods’ descriptive commentary with Sawyers’ own analytical observations, and the booklet cover is graced by artwork from Philip Groom. It will be fascinating to hear just where Sawyers goes from here on his eventful symphonic odyssey.
You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website