Robert Saxton - Portrait. © 2022 Divine Art Ltd

CD Spotlight

Freshness and Vigour

ROBERT McCARNEY listens to music by British composer Robert Saxton

'This is a very well prepared and presented disc that does an excellent job of providing a portrait of the composer.'


Dreaming beside the river, I gave my imagination to the water, the green, clear water, the water that makes the meadows green. I can't sit beside a brook without falling into a deep reverie, without seeing once again my happiness. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring. - Gaston Bachelard

Simon Schama wrote a book called Landscape and Memory, a title which could very well serve for this CD. As much as it is a portrait of Robert Saxton, it is also a portrait of very specific landscapes transformed through the prism of his memory and music. From the evocative painting of Scratby on the Norfolk coast that attractively adorns the cover to an oboe concerto that pays homage to the River Thames, all the works here are indebted to and inspired by particular places and the personal associations they have for Robert Saxton.

If the paragraph above gives you the impression that when you put on this CD you can expect something akin to a clichéd soundtrack for a nature documentary or the latest fantasy movie, think again. Although there are no grand gestures here and the violence and terrifying power of nature are likewise absent, the surface flow of this music, which you can easily allow to wash over you, conceals deeper currents. Ovid said that true art conceals the art and Saxton's considerable compositional craft does not draw attention to itself at the expense of his personally subtle and suggestive soundworld.

The blurb I received with my review copy makes reference to Saxton's music in the following way 'complex in structure but creating no jarring modernist difficulty for the listener'. Exactly which listener is this statement aimed at I ask myself? Whatever jarring modernism is intended to mean some listeners may actually relish such sounds and what some may consider difficulty others may view as the very epitome of the uniquely visceral, emotional and intellectual stimulation and ravishingly otherworldly beauty which is the very reason they turn to and what they most love about classical music in the 21st century because it is something they just don't, or don't expect, or can't find in whatever other forms of more popular music that they at the same time cherish for whatever reasons.

That said Saxton's music, at least on this CD, is not what you might expect from Iannis Xenakis for example, but thankfully Saxton is not a composer writing today who does so as if the twentieth century never happened. His language is informed by the past without being slavishly redolent of it, whether that be the twentieth century, the eighteenth century or whatever. He has clear influences but he has his own sound. Indeed as much as this CD explores the composer's personal memories it also explores music's memory. The last movement of his, oboe concerto in all but name, A Hymn to the Thames from 2020 has a 'big tune' which I thought I had heard before but which I couldn't place so I went and checked the notes to discover that it is Tallis' O Nata Lux.

Listen — Robert Saxton: IV (A Hymn to the Thames)
(msv 28624 track 4, 2:35-3:32) ℗ 2022 Robert Saxton :

Likewise his song cycle Time and the Seasons from 2013 owes a debt to Benjamin Britten to my ears and the composer himself says that the (highlight of the disc for me) Fantasy Pieces for piano trio had their origin in the famous Fantasiestücke of Robert Schumann for similar forces from 1842. All of this demonstrates the composer's ease with and fondness for his past masters but their inspiration in no way inhibits or compromises his own contemporary voice nor is anything here a postmodern pastiche.

The five movement Suite for piano and violin ends with a piece called Quest about which the composer states 'the title indicating, symbolically, a reaching out for a new beginning at the work's close'. One hopes this is true because on repeated listening to this CD it is hard to avoid the feeling that the music has an overall patina of similarity that would benefit from greater contrast and variety.

Listen — Robert Saxton: Quest (Suite)
(msv 28624 track 22, 0:00-0:57) ℗ 2022 Robert Saxton :

Time and the Seasons: a set of six songs with a piece for piano solo as an interlude sets poems written by Saxton himself over various years. The interlude titled Summer Seascape I thoroughly enjoyed, reminding me as it did of the great Russian composer Alexei Stanchinsky and his magical piano pieces. The piece Autumn is quite arresting being as it is for baritone solo.

Listen — Robert Saxton: Autumn (Time and the Seasons)
(msv 28624 track 16, 0:00-0:24) ℗ 2022 Robert Saxton :

As I said above it is the six Fantasy Pieces which made the biggest impression on me. They show the greatest contrast of style and sonority on the disc and demonstrate Saxton's skill as its best.

Listen — Robert Saxton: V (Fantasy Pieces)
(msv 28624 track 9, 0:00-0:47) ℗ 2022 Robert Saxton :

Although this listener would have preferred a bit more of the sublime to contrast with the merely beautiful as it were. This is a very well prepared and presented disc that does an excellent job of providing a portrait of the composer. Saxton is lucky to have his music played by so many fine young musicians. I think it would be unfair to single anyone out. The rich and clear recording is of the highest standard throughout with the exception of Time and the Seasons which as a live recording unfortunately has some unpleasant extraneous ambient sounds but such is live recording. Nothing too serious mind. The (English only) notes by the composer are helpful and well written and it is nice to see that all the members of St Paul's Sinfonia are named. Robert Saxton will turn seventy next year but as evidenced by this very enjoyable CD there seems to be no slowing down in his compositional activity and his music has no lack of freshness and vigour.

Copyright © 22 September 2022 Robert McCarney,
León, Spain







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