On record – Philip Sawyers: Symphony no.4 & Hommage to Kandinsky (BBC NOW / Woods)

Philip Sawyers
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.

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You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

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You can discover more about this release at the Wyastone website, and more about Philip Sawyers by heading to his own website

Switched on – Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper – Glassforms (Infiné Music)

What’s the story?

The music of the so-called ‘minimalists’, led by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, has always provided a strong link between classical and electronic music, and has naturally inspired a number of artists positioned at that junction.

Reinterpretations of Glass and Reich have varied considerably though, from those who like to perform the music straight with no added frills to those who have added drum tracks and remixed them beyond almost all recognition. In that sense the music has been an inspiration, but it has on occasion proved difficult to get the balance right.

Pianist Bruce Brubaker and scientist / electronic music producer Max Cooper have teamed up for their own reinterpretation of the music of Philip Glass, approaching it with a view to adding subtle enhancements rather than radically changing its essence. Cooper has developed his own system for musical expression with Alexander Randon, taking live feeds from the piano to drive his own systems.

What’s the music like?

Brubaker performs well-known Glass piano pieces such as Mad Rush, Two Pages and Metamorphosis 2 with great sensitivity, to which Cooper adds the expressive studio touches and atmospherics. That may seem like straightforward solution, but both performers have to be careful to avoid over-egging what Glass has already done.

The pair link the originals with improvised music of their own. This is through a series of five preludes where Brubaker channels the spirit of Glass but brings in external influences from the likes of Liszt and Bach to galvanizing effect.

There are so many notes in the busy keyboard pieces such as Mad Rush that to do too much would not work – but here the judgement of both performers is right on the money. The piano parts are essentially the same, but Cooper cleverly highlights elements of the busy lines with his own spotlit textures, putting shards of white noise on the top of the likes of Mad Rush and opening out the sound with long bass notes, taking us from intimate beginnings to cinematic, big-venue textures. He does this without compromising the solitary world of a piece like Metamorphosis 2, and each one makes an unexpectedly weighty emotional impact.

While the reinterpretations of pieces like Tirol Concerto are excellent, Brubaker and Cooper’s interpretation of Two Pages is outstanding. It is ideally paced, the tracer lights of the keyboard operating over great waves of synthesizer pads, the chords shifting simply but with a devastatingly effective emotional payoff. So far each listen to this particular track has left a tear in the eye!

Does it all work?

Yes. It is immediately clear that Brubaker and Cooper hold the music of Glass in the utmost respect, but also that they know how to bring it forward and point it towards a slightly more club-orientated audience. There are no beats at any point, but the electronic sounds and textures bring them much closer – and Glass’s own rhythmic impetus is enough in any case. Each track is carefully woven and lovingly produced, and sounds great on headphones.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Glass and Reich have had some excellent remix treatment in the last 25 years or so, but Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper have really raised the game with this album, which is both wholly complimentary to Glass but offers something new in its own right. It is a really fine  achievement.

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Switched on – Peaking Lights: E S C A P E (Dekmantel)

What’s the story?

Peaking Lights are easy to take for granted – but when you delve into their recent output you realise how remarkably consistent it has been. Since moving further into the mainstream with the rather wonderful 936 album of 2011, the husband and wife duo of Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis gained momentum with Lucifer, Cosmic Logic and The Fifth State of Consciousness, all exploiting their talents for grooves infused with dub and psychedelia.

The title of E S C A P E is a pertinent one for their sixth album proper, since they have moved label (to Amsterdam’s Dekmantel imprint) and celebrate a return to the long-playing format for the first time in three years.

What’s the music like?

Put it this way, fans will be happy. Coyes and Dunis have been remarkably consistent in the quality of their album releases and E S C A P E is no different.

There is more upfront activity though, suggesting they have been energised by their new surroundings. Dharma has beguiling vocals but the beat is relatively fast and the psychedelic leanings are heavy – in a good way. Likewise for Soft Escape (Moonman Mix), with some heavy distortion, and Innerterrestrial with its fat bass line, while Traffic adds a punchy guitar. Oddly, the enchanting vocal Dunis brings to The Dammed has quite a similar melodic profile to R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion, with appealing block synths that blossom into a glorious wall of sound.

It is one of many moments for the listener to lose themselves in, as are Peace and Dreams – the ideal counterparts to the dark world climate in the last few weeks, with soothing textures. Meanwhile The Caves has more than a touch of Stranger Things with its bubbling synth lines. Perhaps the most reassuring sentiment of all is saved for last, the lush Change Always Comes devoid of beats and left for Dunis to star, part of a multilayered dreamscape.

Does it all work?

Yes. There is no need to change their approach, yet the music still sounds fresh, and there is a generously filled album here. Peaking Lights never re-tread the same ground on their music, yet they hit a familiar and very welcome combination of relaxation and stimulation unerringly.

Is it recommended?

Yes. A new Peaking Lights album is just what we need in these troubled times, drawing a veil over the world outside and allowing us to dabble with some positively blissful vibes for once.

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Switched on – Erland Cooper: Hether Blether (Phases)

What’s the story?

With Hether Blether, Erland Cooper reaches the end of his Orkney trilogy. What began as a relatively modest concept, a set of music to help him deal with the morning commute into his studio in London, has blossomed into a colourful portrait of the elements of his home island, a trilogy that tugs at the heartstrings of even the most benign observer. After Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water) comes Hether Blether (earth), where Cooper explores his upbringing through not just his own voice but those close by in the Orcadian community.

What’s the music like?

The music on Hether Blether is every bit as enchanting and intoxicating as that for Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, but it has a human element that reaches even further than its predecessors. There is a stronger vocal element here, making the stories that bit more human. Where Solan Goose evoked the bird on the wing, and Sule Skerry revelled in the power of the sea, Hether Blether – as its name implies – is about meaningful conversation, thankfulness for upbringing, and a deep respect for the joy of community.

The most immediately memorable of the ten tracks is Peedie Breeks, written with Benge. Its melody becomes a round, a softly lilting tune going round in circles that feel simultaneously old and new. Noup Head, the first track, sets the scene perfectly, giving once again the perspective of Orkney’s small place in the wide open North Sea that surrounds it. Skreevar is a study in serenity that gains power as Cooper adds melodic layers and voices, perfectly matched by the video where its author launches himself fully clothed into the North Sea!

Meanwhile the shimmering lights and recollections of Longhope – with Kathryn Joseph, John Burnside, Hiroshi Ebina and Hinako Omori – are beautifully wrought and paced.

The spoken voices bring life to the record too. You can hear the life experience, sense the twinkle in the eye. The same can be said of the violin, cello and soprano lines, but these are at a bigger distance.

Does it all work?

Yes. On the title track guest Astra Forward sings of how ‘you gave me the best days of my life’, and this heartfelt sentiment runs through the music and lyrics in Hether Blether, shouting thanks from the rooftops but also whispering in the quietest room.

The broader range of music works well here too, as does the interplay between vocals and instruments. Cooper uses quite a few guests but he has a discerning ear, and the textures never get too crowded. His scoring of the strings is beautifully judged, too, not overlaying them as many do but allowing each melodic line room to breathe. The same can be said for the voices, who add an enchanting air.

Is it recommended?

Again, as with the first two albums, there is no hesitation for putting Hether Blether forward as a wonderful piece of work. When lots of us are looking for solace in the music we listen to in these strange times, Erland Cooper gives us just that. However the poignant reminders of home add a tinge of sadness, as well as reminding of how our upbringing is what underpins our very existence. These are heady words for sure, but Hether Blether is worthy of them!

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You can buy Hether Blether from Erland Cooper’s website here

Switched on – Yotam Avni: Was Here (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

For his debut album, Tel Aviv producer Yotam Avni is looking to combine two of his deep musical loves – Detroit techno and the sort of jazz you might hear on the ECM label. With that in mind, Kompakt is his ideal label home, and the Cologne label have been encouraging his solo output through a succession of well-received tracks and remixes. Avni is honing his sound, bringing it back to the elements – and Was Here, his first album after almost a decade of recording, is a clear statement of his musical identity.

What’s the music like?

The priority here is the rhythm, which Avni often sets out at the start of the track – but melody and texture come through as each piece develops to assume equal importance. There are some sultry atmospheres here, especially when the jazzier elements are introduced. The muted trumpet of It Was What It Was works very well, as does Free Darius Now.

A sparing use of vocals is also effective, meaning the guest appearances of Georg Levin (Island Hopper) and dOP (with trumpeter Greg Paulus on Just Another Day) really stand out. So too does Vortex, a really fine track that grows into its main feature, a hypnotic chant, creating a smoky atmosphere.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is classy deep techno but with a hot-weather twist, very atmospheric and with a few really nice elements worked in from other musical forms. Avni gets his rhythm tracks on the deep side and they provide a solid foundation on which he can always build.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Another good find for Kompakt! Highly recommended.

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