In concert – Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – MahlerFest XXXIV: Sawyers & Mahler Fifth Symphonies


Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Symphony No. 5 (2020) [World Premiere]
Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor (1901-2)

Macky Auditorium, Boulder
Saturday 28th August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A programme of two five-movement Fifths might not have been what Kenneth Woods had envisaged at this stage of his symphonic traversal in the Colorado MahlerFest but, after an inevitably curtailed season last year, the need to jump-start the festival this time round was evident, and the present double-bill did so impressively. Mahler’s cycle is often viewed as the ‘end of the line’ for the genre of the symphony, yet its ongoing evolution is not hard to discern, and it is to Woods’s credit that he is making this aspect a crucial part of his tenure.

Woods has championed the music of Philip Sawyers for more than a decade, with this Fifth Symphony continuing along a stylistic path comparable to those two before it. Its immediate predecessor ended with an expansive Adagio as was his most impressive such movement so far, and the present work continues from such inward (never self-conscious) seriousness in a Moderato (each of the movements being designated with Shostakovich-like inscrutability) that overrides clear-cut sonata procedures for a gradual unfolding whose thoughtful opening theme takes on greater emotional intensity as it builds to an ominous climax then closes in a mood of some ambivalence. Here, as throughout, the writing for a standard orchestra (with fifth horn and harp though no percussion other than timpani) is never less than resourceful.

From here an Allegro picks-up the pace incrementally to capering and, in its middle stages, wistful effect; before the central Lento pursues a sustained course (not a little unlike that of Rubbra’s slow movements) over two cumulative paragraphs – the second of which climaxes with the most anguished music in the whole work, prior to the brief yet affecting coda from strings. More overtly a scherzo, the ensuing Presto also evinces greater expressive contrast between its impulsive outer sections and a chorale-like ‘trio’ of affecting poise. From here, the final Allegro is the most orthodox movement in its energetic and reflective main themes – taking in an intensive development and subtly modified reprise prior to an apotheosis that ensures a decisive yet, as might be expected from this composer, never bathetic conclusion.

On this first hearing, Sawyers’s new symphony proved a cohesive and absorbing piece – less arresting in content, perhaps, than either of its predecessors but with an unfailing formal logic and expressive eloquence that are not to be gainsaid. Interesting, too, this Fifth should mark something of a rapprochement with ‘classical’ tonality; whereas Mahler’s Fifth, which came after the interval, sets in motion that often fractious discourse which duly informs almost all this composer’s symphonic works from his final decade of creativity – indeed, of existence.

Pacing is crucial in Mahler’s symphonies, with this being no exception. From the outset of a trenchant trumpet solo, the Funeral March was almost ideally judged – its development not too histrionic, and coda whose eruptive force subsided into numbed uncertainty. Proceeding (rightly) without pause, its successor – as if a fantasia to the prelude just heard – steered with unobtrusive authority to its climactic if ill-fated chorale, and if the final return of the opening music lacked vehemence, the pulsating expectancy of the closing bars was tangibly rendered.

That the central Scherzo has long divided opinion is not in doubt (Otto Klemperer avoided the work because of it while Hermann Scherchen reduced it by two-thirds), and though Woods’s conception had its merits – a rustically evocative trio plus the transitions on either side – the unforced equability of its outer portions underlined just how closely this music verges on the platitudinous; its ländler-informed coyness and contrapuntal contrivance over-exploiting the potential of its content. At least the coda wrapped up this movement with real decisiveness.

The remaining movements were finely realized, Woods taking the Adagietto at a flowing yet flexible pace that enabled its rapture to emerge without risk of indulgence (here, as throughout, the strings’ articulation of grace notes served a structural as well as expressive purpose). The deftest of transitions duly prepared for a finale whose elaborate interplay of rondo and sonata elements was replete with a cumulative impetus as carried through to a fervent peroration, the chorale blazing forth during a close where affirmation and nonchalance were irresistibly fused.

It should be added that the playing of the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra was of a consistently high standard – testifying to the excellence of the individual musicians as, also, their collective responsiveness to Woods’s technical acumen and interpretative insight. Its latter-day status as mainstream repertoire may have obscured its innovative qualities (and drawn attention away from its unevenness), but to hear this work so authoritatively realized and within the context of a major new symphonic statement says much for the continued importance of MahlerFest.

Further information on the Colorado MahlerFest can be found on their YouTube channel. For more on the festival, visit their website – and click on the names to visit the websites of Kenneth Woods and Philip Sawyers respectively.

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