A Hymn to the Thames (2020)
James Turnbull (oboe), St Paul’s Sinfonia / Andrew Morley
Fantasy Pieces (2020)
Fidelio Trio [Darragh Morgan (violin), Tim Gill (cello), Mary Dullea (piano)]
Time and the Seasons (2013)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Andrew West (piano)
Madeleine Mitchell (violin), Clare Hammond (piano)
Métier msv28624 [69’40’’]
Producers / Engineers Adaq Khan, Stewart Smith (Time and the Seasons)
Recorded 12 March 2014 at King’s Hall, Ilkley (Time and the Seasons); 27 January 2020 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford (Suite); 7 November 2021 at Conway Hall, London (Fantasy Pieces); 28 January 2022 at St John the Evangelist, London (A Hymn to the Thames)
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Having issued several of his works on miscellanies, Métier now issues a release devoted to Robert Saxton – this Portrait comprising four pieces which, written during the past decade, make for a revealing overview of the composer’s musical and wider aesthetic convictions.
What’s the music like?
Earliest among these works is Time and the Seasons – a song-cycle to Saxton’s own poems, in which memories of the composer’s long attraction to the south-eastern Norfolk coast are elided with a seasonal traversal from then back to winter; and itself underpinned by a tonal evolution drawing the six songs into a musical continuity. A piano solo Summer Seascape provides a formal and expressive pivot, the baritone solo Autumn an entrée into the The beach in winter as foregrounds human activity against a backdrop of temporal permanence.
Although they likewise have descriptive titles, the five pieces that comprise Suite for violin and piano seem inherently abstract in their content. Following the cumulative activity then limpid evocation of the first two, the others play without pause – the visceral immediacy of Jacob and the Angel, then the ethereal interplay in Bells of Memory, leading into Quest with (as in the song-cycle) a sense of this music having come full-circle yet simultaneously setting out fresh possibilities – tonal and emotional – to be pursued in future compositions.
The composer himself notes that Fantasy Pieces for piano trio, despite its title and scoring, is not related to Schumann’s eponymous work in any formal or thematic sense. Instead of the latter’s four character-pieces, moreover, Saxton opts for six continuous items whose fluidity of content and intuitive follow-through readily point up the various connotations of the title. That the closing piece seeks to provide a definite resolution while imparting a sense of open-endedness to the sequence overall is merely the most arresting facet of this engaging work.
Closure and un-restrictedness are no less crucial in A Hymn to the Thames, a concertante for oboe and ‘Classical’ forces whose four movements outline the river’s journey from its source in the Cotswolds to its estuary at the North Sea. Allusions to places encountered on route are deftly inferred (notably choral works by Taverner and Tallis), with the soloist a ‘first among equals’ as it leads the orchestra on through these contrasted musical landscapes towards a heightened arrival as the river meets the sea and, in turn, a comparable sense of renewal.
Does it all work?
It does. Saxton observed several years ago his music had become both more serial and tonal in its preoccupations, as is evident from the works recorded here. An incidental fascination is how each section or movement, appealing in itself, yet leaves a sense of open-endedness that is only resolved through the context in which they appear. This will doubtless be evident on a larger scale when Saxton’s Scenes from the Epic of Gilgamesh is premiered by the English Symphony Orchestra in Oxford as part of its 21st Century Symphony Project on March 10th.
Is it recommended?
Very much so. Excellence of performers and performances is matched by sound which gives little indication of any disparity in venues or dates, and the composer provides informative booklet notes. Hopefully further releases of Saxton will be forthcoming from this source.
For purchase information on this album, and to hear sound clips, visit the Divine Art Recordings Group website. For more on the composer, visit Robert Saxton’s dedicated website – and for more on the performers, click on Clare Hammond, Madeleine Mitchell, Andrew Morley, James Turnbull, Andrew West, Roderick Williams, Fidelio Trio and St. Paul’s Sinfonia