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Philip Sawyers: Double Concerto etc

English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods (Nimbus)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Philip Sawyers
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello; Viola Concerto; Octet; Remembrance for Strings*
Daniel Rowland (violin, viola), Maja Bogdanović (cello); *English String Orchestra; English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
Nimbus NI 6436   71:26 mins


Kenneth Woods’s passion for the independent-minded music of the British composer Philip Sawyers (now in his early seventies) has resulted in four previous albums. Overall, the new arrival isn’t the most persuasive. The opening moments of the 2020 Double Concerto – questing melodic gestures unfurling over a gentle bass pulse – are immediately striking, though future pleasures become complicated by murkier harmonies, fragmentary structures and a recording balance that puts Daniel Rowland’s thin violin in second place behind Maja Bogdanović’s warmly throbbing cello. Ruling over both, often, is the orchestra: you wouldn’t guess from this that Sawyers spent 24 years experiencing an orchestra’s sound from within as a violinist in the Royal Opera House pit.

Similarly swirling and overloaded textures make life difficult for Rowland and the listener in the Viola Concerto, written the same year. Reduced forces during the slow movement bring some relief, along with the finale’s bustling writing for the viola and the rushing, chattering woodwinds. The 2007 Octet is even more action-packed, writhing around so much within Sawyers’s usual expanded tonality that it feels as if the piece is trying to match the compact density of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, written a century before.

The best piece is the simplest and shortest: Remembrance, again from 2020, a memorial for a friend and colleague’s late parents, but eloquent enough to serve us all well in dark times. It’s a final justification for Woods’s devotion to the cause and his orchestra’s skill and gusto.


Geoff Brown