In concert – Daniel Rowland, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Poulenc, Philip Sawyers & Mozart

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Poulenc Sinfonietta FP141 (1947)
Sawyers Viola Concerto (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550 (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

The Priory, Great Malvern
Saturday 5 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having relocated from Hereford to Great Malvern, the English Symphony Orchestra’s second concert this weekend followed a broadly similar format with, once again, a first public hearing for a recent concerto by its former Composer-in-Association and now its Composer Laureate.

First, though, a welcome revival for the Sinfonietta that Poulenc wrote for the founding of the BBC’s Third Programme (later Radio Three). The composer wrote little music for orchestra outside a concertante or theatrical context, making this piece from his maturity more valuable. Poulenc’s aesthetic may have been avowedly non-symphonic, but there is no lack of formal focus in an opening Allegro as was suitably impetuous here; nor of capering wit in a scherzo that only marginally outstays its welcome. Not so the Andante, whose fusion of ingratiating charm and restive pathos is almost a character portrait. A showcase, too, for woodwind such as the players seized upon gratefully – the orchestra entering into the spirit of the final Rondo with an abandon neatly offset by the introspective closing pages with their equivocal pay-off.

Not wishing to invoke the joke about buses, but Philip Sawyers had directly followed up the Double Concerto heard yesterday with a Viola Concerto for Daniel Rowland. The outward three-movement trajectory is retained, but the musical content is appreciably different – not least in the moderately paced Allegro whose substantial initial tutti outlines numerous ideas explored extensively if understatedly over what follows. Nor does the absence of a cadenza sell short a viola part whose plangent tones are enhanced with the translucent orchestration.

Almost inevitably less immediate than the corresponding movement of its predecessor, the central Andante is absorbing in its meditative soliloquy for the soloist – often in the company of solo wind and whose haunting demeanour is countered though never quite dispelled by the final Allegro. Here the lively refrain provides an outlet such as Rowlands, clearly as adept a violist as he is a violinist, despatched with no mean virtuosity. Once again, it was a sense of the whole work brought formally and expressively full circle as gave the coda its conviction.

Continuing their reverse traversal of Mozart’s final three symphonies, the ESO and Kenneth Woods (above) tonight gave the 40th – most dramatic of the trilogy and whose innovations are easy to take for granted, but whose opening Allegro is never less than compulsive when the trade-off between its indelible main theme and tensile accompaniment was so intently maintained through to the fatalistic coda. The Andante can often feel flaccid but not when directed with such attention to its lilting gait and expressive intensity, while the Menuetto had a rhythmic trenchancy and harmonic acerbity offset by its trio’s repose. The final Allegro unfolded at an ideal tempo – its second-half repeat vindicated by an altered emphasis on the development’s visceral opening sequence, with a heady ratcheting-up of emotion in those very closing bars.

Impressive music-making, and just what was needed in what are suddenly dangerous times. Reason enough, therefore, for having begun this concert (as on the previous night) with the Ukrainian national anthem: an opportunity, however brief, for some much-needed reflection.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at Great Malvern Priory, click here

In concert – Daniel Rowland, Maja Bogdanović, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Philip Sawyers Double Concerto, Haydn & Mozart

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Haydn Symphony No. 96 in D major Hob.1/96 ‘The Miracle’ (1791)
Sawyers Concerto for Violin and Cello (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), Maja Bogdanović (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

St Peter’s Church, Hereford
Friday 4 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this first in a pair of concerts that featured two recent concertos from its current Composer Laureate, heard alongside symphonic works which have long been – or, in one instance, should be – a part of the standard repertoire.

If not the most often heard of his ‘London Symphonies’, Haydn’s 96th is typical in its formal precision and expressive richness. Not least the opening movement, its ominous introduction the perfect foil to an energetic and often impetuous Allegro, then an Andante whose variations deftly alternate wit with pathos. The ESO’s playing was at its most felicitous both here and in a robust Menuetto, the piquant oboe melody of whose trio was elegantly rendered by Rebecca Wood. Nor was there any lack of incisiveness in the finale’s good-humoured dash to its finish.

Concertos for violin and cello have hardly been numerous, composers doubtless inhibited by Brahms’s example, so credit to Philip Sawyers for rising to the challenge in this piece for the compelling partnership of Daniel Rowland and Maja Bogdanović. As in Sawyers’s previous concertos (for cello, trumpet, and violin), there are three compact movements – the opening Allegro moderato conveying something of a preludial feel through its speculative progress and blurring of formal boundaries such that the music tails away uncertainly toward its close.

It is in the central Andante that this work came into its own, Sawyers’s own experience as a string player evident in the emotional raptness of the soloists’ dialogue and underpinned by eddying orchestral textures which did much to sustain the ongoing eloquence. If the Allegro Vivo, its main idea redolent of Poulenc (or, perhaps, Malcolm Arnold at his wittiest) risked seeming lightweight, the tensile interplay of the soloists along with a sense of the thematic elements coming audibly full circle made for an effervescent and ultimately decisive finale.

An impressive debut, then, for a piece which ought to find favour in this still limited medium. The soloists duly returned for Castillo Interior (2013) by Pēteris Vasks, inspired by the mystic St Teresa of Avila and creating a suitably fervent impression even when abbreviated as here.

Mozart’s final three symphonies will all be heard, in reverse order, over the remainder of the ESO’s current season. This evening brought the 41st whose Jupiter subtitle may have been a posthumous addition, but aptly evokes the work’s essence – not least with an initial Allegro both forthright and impulse as Kenneth Woods heard it. The ensuing Andante felt a little too swift for its ‘cantabile’ fully to register, but its confiding intimacy was fully in evidence – as was the lilting swing then pert elegance of the Menuetto. Woods favoured a rapid tempo for the final Allegro, and it was a tribute to these players that this music’s textural intricacy and underlying momentum were maintained across a lengthy traversal (with all repeats observed) through to a coda whose contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic elan were tangibly in evidence. Overall, a persuasive reading of a masterpiece which, as with its predecessor, is all too easily taken for granted. So, too, the assumption that peace will prevail in Europe – reason enough for this evening’s concert to have started with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Maja Bogdanović, Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at St. Peter’s, Hereford, click here

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The music of Saxton & Sawyers

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English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Remembrance (2020); Octet (2007)
Saxton
The Resurrection of the Soldiers (2016)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
7-8 April 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

For the latest in their online series, the English Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Kenneth Woods presented a trio of works written in the last 20 years. The music of Philip Sawyers, their Composer Laureate, featured in two contrasting pieces.

A recent work, Remembrance for Strings, made an instant impact. This deeply emotive, thought provoking piece has a hint of Elgar in its profoundly elegiac tone and scoring, but unmistakably bears Sawyers’ fingerprints as the theme evolves, gradually creeping upwards. The strings of the ESO were perfectly paced by Woods, giving the theme plenty of room and bringing the important viola and cello lines through the texture. Sawyers finds effective contrasts between notable pain points of discord and an almost complete stillness as the strings collect their thoughts, holding their collective breath in ideally weighted phrasing. This deeply affecting piece deserves to be heard much further afield, its impact comparable (if notably different) to that of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. A note for Emily Davis, the ESO guest leader, who gave a touching final solo.

Sawyers’ Octet was next, a single movement work from 2007 written for the youthful ensemble Liquid Architecture. With a scoring for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet and double bass, its colours provided the ideal contrast to Remembrance, as did its series of compact melodies and increasingly busy exchanges, carefully interwoven throughout the ensemble. Written in a single movement, the Octet is an involving work, treating the eight players as soloists but exploring and enjoying their properties in smaller group discussions. Perhaps inevitably the mind is briefly cast back to Stravinsky’s work for the same number of players, but also the harmonic language of Berg and Hindemith. When all the instruments play together the dense contrapuntal writing is at its most effective, while Sawyers ensures the component melodies can be appreciated in a solo capacity too. Kenneth Woods conducted a fine account here, the ESO soloists playing with flair and sensitivity, all the while gathering momentum towards an emphatic arrival in C major. The instrumentalists’ placing, and some sensitive camera work under the direction of videographer Tim Burton, allowed heightened insight into the speed of Sawyers’ rapidly evolving ideas.

As he approaches his 70th birthday, Robert Saxton is a British composer arguably yet to receive the full recognition of which his music is surely due. The Resurrection of The Soldiers is an illustration of his ability to respond to art from another form with remarkable perception. A 12-minute tone poem for string orchestra, written in 2016 and dedicated to George Vass, The Resurrection of The Soldiers is a powerfully concentrated work, responding as it does to the final panel of Stanley Spencer’s commission for Sandham Memorial Chapel. The set of paintings result from the artist’s experiences in the British army in World War One, depicting soldiers emerging from their graves on the last day.

Clearly this depiction struck a lasting emotional chord with the composer, his response speaking initially of searing pain but progressing to a much more hopeful outcome. The upper strings of the ESO spoke powerfully here, maintaining their intensity in the long notes before digging in to an eventful exchange in the energetic central section. This culminated in a powerful chord, richly scored – and with a reverent pause from which the resurrection itself evolved with increasing surety, reaching an exultant if not un-scarred E major.

You may wish to complement the ESO’s performance with detail from the artwork itself, from the National Trust website, or you may wish to form your own images which the music powerfully imprints. Either way, do catch the whole of this compelling program, for these are three very meaningful pieces of music given in the best possible performances.

You can view this concert from 18-22 February at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here

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.

In concert – Sarah Beth Briggs, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart in Cheltenham

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Sarah Beth Briggs (piano, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers The Valley of Vision (2017)
Mozart
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major K482 (1785)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Town Hall, Cheltenham
Monday 25 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Sarah Beth Briggs by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Tonight’s concert found the English Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, a building of Victorian opulence with an expansive while (surprisingly?) immediate acoustic to match, in a programme featuring classics of their respective media by Mozart and Beethoven.

First, though, a welcome revival for The Valley of Vision – the tone poem by Philip Sawyers that surveys the environs around Shoreham, Kent as were immortalized in the visionary early landscapes of Samuel Palmer. Although the composer had identified five continuous sections, the probing intensity of this music makes for a seamless unfolding which was to the fore in a superbly focussed account as directed by Kenneth Woods (who recently premiered Sawyers’ Fifth Symphony at the Colorado Mahler Festival). No less tangible was the control over this music’s momentum, extending through to a climactic faster section before soon regaining its initial pensiveness. In its subtly evocative aura and persuasive handling of tonality, moreover, this piece can rank with the most significant British orchestral works of the past two decades.

From the six piano concertos that Mozart wrote for his subscription concerts during the mid-1780s, the Twenty-Second is likely the least often heard. A pity, when its relatively expansive form and unpredictability of content are striking even in the context of this most exploratory phase from the composer’s output. Certainly, it is a piece of which Sarah Beth Briggs had the measure – whether in the forceful impetus of its opening Allegro, winsome interplay between soloist and woodwind in the central Andante (arguably the most eloquent among Mozart’s sets of variations) or blithe unfolding of a final Rondo afforded greater pathos by the ‘harmonien’ episode whose interposing was an inspired departure. Nor were Dennis Matthews’s succinct and artfully integrated cadenzas other than an enhancement of what was a fine performance.

Not that there was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral following the interval, a worthy successor to those performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies that Woods and the ESO have given in recent concerts. Thus, a purposeful though never inflexible take on the opening movement left sufficient room to characterize its reflective asides, with the ‘Scene by the brook’ even more engrossing through its homogeneity of texture and seamless continuity; the closing bird-calls elegantly phrased and enticingly integrated into the whole.

Too rapid a tempo for the scherzo left Woods with insufficient room to point up contrasts in motion with its trio sections, but the Thunderstorm was finely rendered as an extended introduction into the finale – this Shepherd’s Song emerging as the formal and emotional culmination in all respects. Not the least of these strengths was an inevitability of progress – here maintained right through to a coda of serene poise and, in the process, underlining the degree to which any vestige of self has been sublimated into the enveloping cosmic dance.

An absorbing performance as made one look forward to further Beethoven symphonies from this source. Woods and ESO are in Worcester at the weekend with two concerts as part of the Autumn Elgar Festival, the first featuring the masterly Elegy for Strings by Harold Truscott.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website. For more on composer Philip Sawyers, visit his website here, while more on pianist Sarah Beth Briggs can be found at her website