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.