CD Reviews

There must be some mysterious metaphysical organism at play which compels English composers to write such potently expressive music for string orchestra. Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Edward Elgar’s Elegy for Strings, Frank Bridge’s Lament, to select but a few examples. Written as recently as 2021, the Remembrance for Strings by Philip Sawyers, poignantly performed here by the English String Orchestra, without a doubt belongs near or at the top of that list. Based on an evocative, recurring seven note motif that weaves its way through the whole piece as if part and parcel of the orchestral fabric, it stuns the listener when, at the very end, this motif rises to the top and, in one final breath, shines brightly. It was composed at the request of a friend who had recently lost his mother, and certainly captures the sentiment extremely well. In a previous review of this composer’s Symphony No.4 I had remarked that he exhibited an “intuitive control over symphonic development.” The masterfully controlled development of this simple motif certainly reinforces this impression. Classical Music Sentinel – Jean-Yves Duperron —Classical Music Sentinel – Jean-Yves Duperron

“…Woods’ performance, which deserves unanimous praise, highlights this brilliant bond between the two soloists and the musicians of the English String Orchestra, and the numerous contrasts between the flexible and fluid solos and the orchestral texture, delicate and mysterious. It is worth listening carefully to the Remembrance for Strings and enjoying its evocative motif, accompanied by a pale and soft orchestral timbre. It is a work of tonal language that evokes strong feelings of sadness…The last work on the album, Octet, with clear references to Schubert’s work of the same name, consists of four sections without pauses: “Adagio”, “Allegro”, “Andante” and “Allegro”. Some of the interesting aspects of this piece are the contrapuntal writing and interventions of very powerful horn and clarinet solos. Kenneth Woods, a free-spirited and independent conductor, exhibits with rigor and enthusiasm the expressive richness of his orchestra.” –Nuria Serra – Sonogram Magazine

“This is now the sixth volume of orchestral music by Philip Sawyers on the Nimbus Alliance label and the fifth conducted by Kenneth Woods. I reviewed the first release back in October 2010 for this website here and ever since have been an enthusiastic admirer of Sawyers’ work… The relationship with Nimbus Alliance has been a valuable one – a quick look at that list shows that pretty much all of Sawyers’ orchestral works have been recorded by the label and in many cases quite soon after their composition…A feature of all Sawyers’ orchestral scores is his clear sense of instrumental colour and how to write effectively for the forces he deploys – not really that surprising given he spent a quarter century “inside” an orchestra…In the liner Sawyers mentions the “musical and personal connection” between the two players which I wonder is why he has written a work where the two solo parts are so intertwined. Quite unusually for a double concerto work the solo parts, almost without exception, play together – either at the octave, in close harmony or echoing each other’s thematic material. I do not recall hearing any passages when one soloist is in anything but euphonious close conjunction with the other. Likewise the orchestral material supports rather than opposes the solo material. It makes for a very attractive work but one that consciously, it would seem, does not contain as much inherent drama as many Sawyers scores which is perhaps where the sense of neo-classicism comes in.” —Nick Barnard – MusicWeb International

The emergence of Sawyers as a major symphonist of his generation has been among the more significant aspects of latter-day British music…. impressively assured readings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods… It will be fascinating to hear just where Sawyers goes from here on his eventful symphonic odyssey.” Richard Whitehouse, Arcana FM 

“A  and symphonic poem so spectacular, confident and emotionally compelling that it’s inspired me to write a  thread as well!…Listening again to this movement early this morning gave me goosebumps the like of which I haven’t felt with a piece of new music in a long, long time. It seems I’m not the only one.” Adam Philp, The Symphonist

“From the pen of Philip Sawyers (a Londoner born in 1951), these are quite the best two pieces this composer has yet given us…Symphony No.4 (2018) opens in arresting style, a bold summons that bids our involvement in some very strong symphonic argument and varied emotions…placed last is an expansive Adagio, with motivic connections to what has gone before, of haunting intimate expressivity countered by waves of intense fortissimo, and the soaring conclusion wraps the whole convincingly… The half-hour Hommage to Kandinsky (2014), written for the Grand Rapids Symphony, is equally impressive…from misty opening to a troubled ending; listener-interest never flags. Like the Symphony, Hommage to Kandinsky is scored with consummate skill (Kandinsky is for the larger forces) to which the BBC National Orchestra of Wales responds with relish and sensitivity, led by Kenneth Woods with typical flair and compassion.” Colin Anderson, Classical Source

“Here we have two significant and eloquent new works. Both display command of the orchestra and an imaginative mind at work. Both of these compositions require concentrated listening but they will reward the listener for his or her efforts. The more I hear of Philip Sawyers’ music, the more impressed I am. Here, he receives ideal advocacy from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, whose playing is expert and committed. In Kenneth Woods this composer clearly has a formidable champion; under his direction the performances exude conviction.” John Quinn, MusicWeb International

“Sawyers’ Fourth Symphony develops further the assured symphonic technique already evident in its predecessors , and consolidates his position as a major symphonist of our time…The large finale begins as a profound, tragic funeral march, the intensely moving heart of the work, now revealing that all the furious energy of the preceding movements was merely prologue. The music continues in sombre but lyrical vein until the funeral march blasts back onto the scene, heralding a long, surging move toward major key tonalities and the hard-won resolution of a blazing coda. Sawyers employs his very large Romantic orchestra to depict bold shapes in highly contrasted blocks of color, linked in structures with a sense of energetic motion, as in Kandinsky’s teeming canvases. The work’s turbulence and energy might seem surprising for an evocation of feelings aroused by abstract modern art, but this points to Sawyers’ appreciation of Kandinsky’s unique qualities – no retiring pastel watercolorist this! – and the elevation to heroic, epic stature of the subjects of Richard Strauss’ tone poems is frequently called to mind.” Records International

“…an exciting, vibrant symphonic poem as colourful as the Russian painter’s abstract art with the orchestra and Woods revelling in its rich textures and intense emotional sweep. Sawyers’ three-movement Symphony No.4 (2018) employs smaller forces and has a tense, dramatic and densely-argued first movement and ends with a serenely beautiful Adagio. Excellent playing and recording quality to match.” Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post/Midlands Music Reviews

“Phenomenal! Discover masterful, massive orchestral music by a gifted composer, in line with the greats of the 20th century…Symphony No. 4 (2018) opens with strong symphonic pulses that evoke diverse emotions, followed by a shadowy Scherzo. Finally, a sprawling Adagio, with motivic references to what has sounded before. Frightening, soft and intimate expressiveness is, as it were, counteracted by waves of intense fortissimo. A discovery! The recording, made in the Hoddinott Hall of the orchestra in Cardiff, is excellent. The impressive orchestral sound has an impact and the recording conductors have achieved an impressive dynamism that makes the many colors and details of Sawyer’s score beautifully differentiated. Cannot be missed!” Michel Dutrieue, Stretto (Belgium) [Translated from Dutch original]

“The tone poem is a strong piece, clearly structured and ultimately a song of praise about Kandinsky’s colourfulness….His three-movement Fourth Symphony is… very dramatic and thematically characteristic…Kenneth Wood[s] is a highly motivated interpreter who, as a committed advocate of this music, ignites a fire of unbridled passion in it, while at the same time providing architectural clarity so that one can fully experience the complexity of the works.” Remy Franck, Pizzicato (Luxembourg)

“You know that powerful emotion you get, that goosebump inducing rush you feel when music generates an uplifting and well-attained upshot. That’s precisely what I experience every time I hear the intense coda of the expansive Adagio third movement which concludes the Symphony No. 4 by British composer Philip Sawyers… And for me it’s not just the mighty and powerful impact of the final chords that does it, but rather how the music got there … how the conflicting ideas get resolved in the end, or how all of the smaller, less significant building blocks end up producing such an impressive edifice. Conductor Kenneth Woods and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform this “new” music as if it were a long established standard of the repertoire. Highly nuanced orchestration details are manifest, and a firm control on forward momentum is always apparent. Great sound and unwavering playing throughout. Tip of the hat to Nimbus Alliance for travelling down this uncharted road.” Jean-Yves Duperron, Classical Music Sentinel (Canada)

“…the Violin Concerto.. does exude a distinct mid20th-century quality in its formal and expressive objectivity. Both the outer movements keep their lyricism firmly in check through a tensile rhythmic sense, with even the Andante having a restiveness and tension to offset any hint of indulgence: no nostalgic lingering here….Alexander Sitkovetsky renders this piece with appropriate verve, as does Simon Desbruslais the Concerto for trumpet, strings and timpani that arguably leaves the stronger impression. Here the combative outer Allegros make incisive play with this three-way combination, and the central slow movement explores emotional depths which seem the greater for not being dwelt upon. Such probing intensity is no less tangible in The Valley of Vision, a symphonic poem inspired by Samuel Palmer – notably his visionary early landscapes – whose control of momentum, through to the climactic faster section before returning to its initial pensiveness, is never in doubt. Elegiac Rhapsody, Sawyers’s ‘song without words’ written in response to the death of John McCabe, concludes this disc in understated yet affecting manner. The English SO are unfailingly committed in the perceptive hands of Kenneth Woods” Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone Magazine

“Sawyers’ thrilling orchestral music truly captivates, aided and abetted by pitch-perfect soloists Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin) and Simon Desbruslais (trumpet) and the ESO.” BBC Music Magazine

“The Valley of Vision is a substantial tone poem for a Classical-sized orchestra…the music becomes quite powerful at times, but the work ends quietly. This is a fine and imaginative composition….This is an impressive disc. All the music is well worth hearing. The music is imaginatively crafted, constantly showing fine melodic invention and a firm sense of purpose and direction. Clearly Sawyers knows how to get the best out of an orchestra. I’m enjoying my discovery of Philip Sawyers’ music and I’m now resolved to catch up with his first two symphonies. I’m sure that the composer is highly satisfied with the advocacy his pieces receive here. Alexander Sitkovetsky and Simon Desbruslais are terrific soloists while the orchestral playing throughout demonstrates assurance and commitment. Kenneth Woods is clearly a very fine and effective champion for Sawyers’ music.” John Quinn, MusicWeb International

FIVE STARS “When Philip Sawyers’ Violin Concerto was premiered this year my reviewing colleague was “wowed” by it. Listening to this recording performed by the same forces – soloist Alexander Sitkovestsky and the English Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Woods – I was similarly impressed. With its emphasis on long flowing melodic lines it recalls Nicholas Maw’s equally approachable concerto, although its sound-world is very different. Sitkovestsky illuminates the concerto’s musical textures and revels in its fiery cadenza while Woods and the ESO clearly enjoy the energetic finale’s robust pastoralism. Simon Desbruslais is the soloist in the Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani and the Elegiac Rhapsody for Trumpet and Strings. The concerto is immensely challenging… and Desbruslais rises to all its demands. The Rhapsody and the tone poem The Valley of Vision find Sawyers in deeply meditative mood.” Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post

“This Violin Concerto, premiered by the current forces earlier this year, is impressive; such is the contribution of the orchestra it could almost be a ‘Symphony-Concerto’…. The finale holds a beautiful, long-breathed melody, superbly given here by Alexander Sitkovetsky, whose playing throughout is exemplary…Sawyers has a fervent interpreter in Kenneth Woods, conductor. The Valley of Vision, inspired by painter Samuel Palmer, is heard in a radiant account… it offers both sweet repose and an intense climax.The Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings, in memoriam John McCabe, is powerful. Simon Desbruslais is a superb interpreter” — Colin Clarke, Classical Music Magazine

“Philip Sawyers’s 3rd symphony (2015) is undoubtedly one of the finest British symphonies of recent years…music of searing intensity…The fifth song, ‘Futility’, serves to mark Sawyers’s stature as a composer: the same Owen sonnet as memorably set by Britten in the War Requiem, I aver that Sawyers’s is the profounder of the two. Finally comes the meaty Fanfare (2016) – really a motet for orchestral brass. Great music, great performances and great sound from Nimbus, engineered by Simon Fox-Gal.” Guy Rickards – Gramophone. (Nimbus Alliance NI 6353)

“Philip Sawyers’s Third Symphony is a major new work from a distinctive voice in British music…a work of impressive symphonic unity and drama.” Gavin Dixon – Classical CD reviews.

“I have no reservations in pronouncing this a very fine work indeed and one which deserves a place in any orchestra’s repertoire…Throughout the CD the utter commitment of the English Symphony Orchestra and String Orchestra and even more that of Kenneth Woods who obviously loves and admires this music is clear and in the song-cycle April Frederick gives not only a technically adroit performance but also a passionate one.” Gary Higginson – MusicWeb International

“The very impressive song cycle is beautifully sung by April Frederick. Sawyers’s longest symphony to date (3rd) is a work which teems with orchestral colour and musical events. The heart of the work lies in the 2nd movement Adagio…music of a Brucknerian intensity which is powerfully maintained. The disc is completed with a musical bonne bouche an extended fanfare which rather gleefully tips its hat to everything from Bliss great ceremonial fanfares to something akin to John Williams in Star Wars mode. The playing of the ESO is extremely adept from weighty string playing through solo winds of great sensitivity to brass of bite and power.” Nick Barnard – MusicWeb International

This record by Philip Sawyers (1951) is one of those recordings that we want to hear many times. Without a doubt, Sawyers’ Symphony No 3 is one of the greatest English symphonies written in recent years. Woods has managed to maintain the aesthetic tensions framed in diatonicism, atoalism and modality, with rigour and imaginative flexibility of the highest order.” Carme Miro – Sonograma (original in Catalan)

“All in all this is an excellent disc, powerful music presented in performances it is hard to imagine being easily surpassed. This is accessible in the best sense ? knotty but not opaque, challenging but compelling. When it is this good not a lot else matters.” Nick Barnard in MusicWeb International” 2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“Power, strength and expressive range are here a-plenty, and the continuous flow of the music is gripping. The performances are totally committed and the recording quality is really fine. This is the kind of music that gives one hope for the future of our art.” Robert Matthew-Walker in Classical Source, 2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“Sawyers is a composer of real quality. His music is always fascinating in its breadth of ideas as well as its execution as this disc so amply demonstrates.” Steve Arloff in MusicWeb International,?2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“The three works have an instant melodic appeal without in any way being populist. Added to this melodic gift the composer writes music that actually goes somewhere. I think we have something really special here.” John Whitmore in MusicWeb International, 2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“Three works of strong personality, genuine substance and warm-hearted integrity. Boasting admirable sound and judicious balance, this rewarding disc earns the strongest recommendation.” Andrew Achenbach in the Gramophone, 2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“There is nothing ugly, no tedium and it is not stop and start music but flows in a welcome coherence. There are not clichés either and its language is somewhat original. (Cello Concerto) A colourful eventful piece…there is activity, life, melodic lines, drama and purpose. It is music that is rich, well developed and satisfying. (2nd Symphony)” David C F Wright in,2 Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“….an effortless demonstration that the history of music can proceed in an unbroken line and the music of yesterday can accommodate the best products of today. There is much pleasure in observing with what freedom and resource Sawyers shows passing respect for 12-tone techniques. The CD reflects great credit on all the performers but most on the composer.” Robert Anderson,?2nd Symphony, Cello Concerto, Concertante, NI6281

“…these few works available on disc are sufficient to expel Sawyers as one of the truly great British composers.” Musik & Theater Magazine (Switzerland), Jan 2014, Violin Sonatas, NI6240, Steinberg Duo

“powerfully persuasive…beholden stylistically to no obvious external influence…” Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb-International, Jan 2014, Violin Sonatas, NI6240, Steinberg Duo

“…violin-writing that similarly reveals Sawyers’ gift for exploiting the full expressive and technical range of the violin… it is good to welcome two works to the repertory that deserve to be widely performed. One hopes that this Nimbus Alliance disc will do the trick.” Edward Greenfield, Gramophone Magazine, Dec 2013, Violin Sonatas, NI6240, Steinberg Duo

“…it is refreshing to hear some respectable, honest, down-to-earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled structure and moments of sheer inspiration.” John France , MusicWeb-International, Nov 2013, Violin Sonatas, NI6240, Steinberg Duo

“For all its use of twelve tone writing, this work does not sound at all lacking in melody, let alone structural cohesion, showing just how fine and entrancing such a work can be.” Bruce Reader, The Classical Reviewer, Oct 2013 Violin Sonatas, NI6240, Steinberg Duo

“…music of instant appeal and enduring quality performed with zealous passion recorded in excellent sound. Well-worth investigating.” Nick Barnard, MusicWeb-International, Oct 2010, Orchestral Music, NI6129, Grand Rapids Symphony, David Lockington

“….his 1972 student work Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass was performed in 2002…the piece stands up as a remarkable achievement for a student composer of barely 21.” Peter Dickinson – Gramophone

“I was bowled over by ‘concert overture’ ‘The Gale of Life’….I feel that the form and the orchestration of this overture admirably reflects the sentiment of the ‘unsettling and disturbing’ words of Housman’s great poem. This is powerful music that evokes Sawyers’ trademark balance of juxtaposing ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary.’…The Symphony No. 1 is an impressive work. The work concludes with a stunning peroration, ending on a not altogether unexpected D major chord.” John France – MusicWeb International