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

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Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Symphony No. 5 (2020) [World Premiere]
Mahler
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.