On Record: Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – MahlerFest XXXIV: Sawyers & Mahler: Fifth Symphonies (Colorado MahlerFest)

Sawyers Symphony no.5 (2021) [World premiere]
Mahler Symphony no.5 in C# minor (1901-02)

Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Colorado MahlerFest 195269164287 [two discs, 111’45”]

Recorded Live performances at Macky Auditorium, Boulder, Colorado, 28 August 2021

reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Two five-movement Fifths brought the 34th Colorado MahlerFest to an impressive ending. Mahler’s cycle is often seen as ‘end of the line’ for the symphony, yet its further evolution is not hard to discern, and Kenneth Woods is rightly making this a crucial aspect of his tenure.

What’s the music like?

Philip SawyersFifth Symphony pursues a stylistic path comparable to those two before it. Its predecessor ended with an expansive Adagio, and this work continues from such inward seriousness in a Moderato that overrides clear-cut sonata procedures for a gradual unfolding whose thoughtful initial theme takes on greater emotional intensity as it builds to an ominous climax, before closing in a mood of no mean ambivalence. The writing, for an orchestra with fifth horn and harp though no percussion other than timpani, is never less than resourceful.

From here an Allegro increases the tempo to capering and, in its middle stages, wistful effect. The central Lento pursues a sustained course over cumulative paragraphs, the latter climaxing with the work’s most anguished music, before an affecting coda. The ensuing Presto affords greater expressive contrast between impulsive outer sections and a chorale-like trio of musing poise. The final Allegro is the most orthodox movement in its energetic and reflective themes, taking in an intensive development and subtly modified reprise prior to a decisive apotheosis.

Pacing is crucial in Mahler’s symphonies, his Fifth being no exception. The opening Funeral March is ideally judged – its development not too histrionic, then a coda whose eruptive force subsides into numbed uncertainty. Proceeding without pause, its successor steers securely to a climactic yet ill-fated chorale, and if the final return of its initial music lacks vehemence, the pulsating expectancy of the closing bars is tangibly rendered. Woods’ handling of the central Scherzo contrasts a rustically evocative trio with the ländler-infused coyness and contrapuntal contrivance either side, the coda wrapping up this overlong movement with real decisiveness.

The remaining two movements are finely realized, the Adagietto taken at a flowing if flexible pace that enables its inherent rapture to emerge without any risk of indulgence. The deftest of transitions duly prepares for a finale whose elaborate interplay of rondo and sonata elements is replete with a cumulative impetus here carried through to a fervent peroration, the chorale blazing forth during a close in which affirmation and nonchalance are irresistibly combined.

Does it all work?

Almost always. Sawyers’ Fifth symphony is a cohesive and absorbing piece – less arresting in overall content than either of its predecessors, though with an unfailing formal logic and expressive eloquence that are not to be gainsaid. Interesting, moreover, that this Fifth marks something of a rapprochement with ‘classical’ tonality, whereas Mahler’s Fifth sets in motion a fractious discourse which informs almost all this composer’s subsequent symphonic works.

Is it recommended?

Certainly. The playing of the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra is of a high standard, testifying to the excellence of these musicians in their collective responsiveness to Woods’ technical acumen and interpretive insight. To hear this work so authoritatively realized and within the context of a major new symphonic statement says much for the significance of MahlerFest.

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