English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Adrian Williams Symphony no.1 (2018-19, rev. 2021)
Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Studio recording 1-2 December 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
The 21st Symphony Project, launched five years ago by the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, has seen several impressive premieres – with this First Symphony by Adrian Williams its most ambitious yet, whether in terms of underlying conception or overall impact.
Now in his mid-60s, Williams has been a notable presence – albeit on the periphery – of music in the UK for several decades (more information can be found via the web references below); his advocates including Raphael Wallfisch and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Regular listeners to the ESO’s digital concerts will have encountered his striking Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’ and intricately wrought eloquence of Migrations for strings; aspects from both resurfacing here, if on a considerably larger scale and exuding correspondingly greater force.
Playing almost 50 minutes and scored for a sizable orchestra including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets and four percussionists with harp, piano and celesta, the present work is evidently a summation of where its composer has reached over the course of his musical (and likely extra-musical) odyssey. Not that there is anything gratuitous or self-indulgent about the outcome; indeed, for all its formal complexity and emotional reach, this is music created out of inherently basic motifs – its initial three notes and their rearrangement generating the first movement’s main themes as well as outlining a long-term tonal trajectory which, though not pursued as systematically as in the earlier symphonies of Robert Simpson, remains as a focus throughout the intervening activity and the focal-point toward which such activity is directed.
From its imposing Maestoso epigraph, the opening Stridente unfolds against the background of, without thereby adhering to, sonata-form principles – its motivic components drawn into a continuous and frequently combative evolution necessarily left unresolved at the close. There follows a Scherzando that eschews ternary design for a through-composed format proceeding by tension and release to its decisive ending. To say the ensuing Lento is the expressive crux of this work might detract from the plangent, desolate tone of music whose frequently sparse textures and elliptical harmonies re-affirm that ‘less is more’. Despite its Energico marking, the finale unfolds with slow-burning momentum made cumulative by channelling its motivic evolution towards a Dolente apotheosis whose outcome is as inevitable as it is transcendent.
An impressive piece in terms not only of ambition but also realization. There are considerable technical challenges on route, but these are met with conviction and no little resourcefulness by an expanded ESO often tested while never fazed during its eventful course. Woods directs with his customary discretion and an attention to detail that goes a long way toward clarifying music which feels ‘complex and luminous’ as much in spirit as by design. Whether or not the outer movements might yield greater panache could only be determined under live conditions.
It might also be noted the designation is no idle boast, Williams having been commissioned to write a successor the ESO will schedule at a future date. Even were it to pursue a wholly different course, the achievement of this First Symphony is one not likely to be diminished.
You can view this concert from 25-29 March at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here. For more information on Adrian Williams, head to his website or an extensive biography on the MusicWeb International site