Philip Sawyers: Symphony No 4; Hommage to Kandinsky. © 2020 Wyastone Estate Ltd

CD Spotlight

A British Tint

GIUSEPPE PENNISI listens to two recent orchestral works by British composer Philip Sawyers

'The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Kenneth Woods, gives masterly performances of the two pieces.'


It is a good moment for British classical music. Two operas by George Benjamin - Written on the Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence - are being performed and applauded around the world. Philip Sawyers' works are quite well known in the US and in the UK, even though his compositions are not yet frequently heard outside the anglo-saxon world.

Sawyers was born in London. He began composing as a teenager. He studied at Dartington College of Arts and at the Guildhall School of Music. He started his career as an orchestral violinist with the Royal Opera House. This left little room for composition. During this time, Sawyers was also teaching, primarily as the violin coach for the Kent County Youth Orchestra, and as a visiting teacher at schools and colleges. This lasted until 1997, when he opted to spend a year in postgraduate study at Goldsmiths College, leading to a resumption in composition.

Sawyers mostly favours traditional forms and absolute music with few programmatic overtones. The composer has said he felt that his largely tonal music, influenced by Hindemith was 'distinctly out of fashion' during the last three decades of the twentieth century when avant-garde serial and electronic music dominated the scene.

His first works date from his time as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he received little attention as a composer until 2001 when the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra in the US performed one of those student pieces, the Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972). The orchestra went on to record the piece alongside the Symphony No 1 (2004), released internationally in 2011. Commissions and further performances followed. Sawyers has benefited from his association with the Nimbus Alliance record label and with the American conductor Kenneth Woods, resulting in recordings of many of his recent orchestral works and concertos.

This bio-data may be useful for those listeners of this CD approaching Sawyers' works for the first time. The CD includes two important compositions: Symphony No 4 (2018) and the symphonic poem Hommage to Kandinsky (2014).

Symphony No 4 does not follow the Haydn canon to be structured in four movements, but rather the late nineteenth-early twentieth century French style of a symphony in three movements, like, for instance, works by Paul Dukas, Ernest Chausson and César Franck. The symphony also discards the traditional scherzo in the second and middle movement, replacing it with Presto-Moderato-Presto, a very rhythmic piece.

Listen — Philip Sawyers: Presto - Moderato - Presto (Symphony No 4)
(track 2, 0:00-0:54) © 2020 Wyastone Estate Ltd :

This is especially so if compared with the melancholic and dark mood of the first and third movements.

Listen — Philip Sawyers: Moderato (Symphony No 4)
(track 1, 0:03-0:53) © 2020 Wyastone Estate Ltd :

Listen — Philip Sawyers: Adagio (Symphony No 4)
(track 3, 0:01-0:51) © 2020 Wyastone Estate Ltd :

Although traditional, the symphony explores the integration of twelve-tone technique into a tonal hierarchy and the development of small motivic cells that unify the entire work. It's a quite interesting approach.

The large scale symphonic poem Hommage to Kandinsky is a product of a visit to an exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in 2006. It reminds me of the large-scale tone poems by Richard Strauss and Ottorino Respighi in the twentieth century. It is very descriptive and pictorial as well as full of colours (as compared with the almost dark tint of Symphony No 4). The beginning is very enthralling; there are nearly ten minutes of a single movement with Adagio, Allegro, Andante, Allegro, Andante and Vivace sections.

Listen — Philip Sawyers: Hommage to Kandinsky
(track 4, 0:01-0:53) © 2020 Wyastone Estate Ltd :

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Kenneth Woods, gives masterly performances of the two pieces.

No doubt this CD will make Philip Sawyers better known also outside the anglo-saxon world.

Copyright © 27 August 2020 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy







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