The music of Saxton & Sawyers
18th-22nd February 2022

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Philip Sawyers  Octet
Robert Saxton  The Resurrection of the Soldiers
Philip Sawyers  Remembrance for Strings


English Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Kenneth Woods
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About this Concert

Philip Sawyers, the ESO’s Composer Laureate, was the first composer to feature in the orchestra’s acclaimed 21st Century Symphony Project. Written in 2020, Remembrance for Strings is a touching meditation on loss, based on themes from Sawyers’ tone poem based on the paintings of Samuel Palmer, The Valley of Vision.

Philip Sawyers, the ESO’s Composer Laureate, was the first composer to feature in the orchestra’s acclaimed 21st Century Symphony Project. Written in 2020, Remembrance for Strings is a touching meditation on loss, based on themes from Sawyers’ tone poem based on the paintings of Samuel Palmer, The Valley of Vision.

The Octet was written for the young chamber ensemble Liquid Architecture, who gave the first performance in September 2007. The work marked an important evolutionary step in Sawyers move towards a more densely contrapuntal approach to composition, something that would have a pivotal influence on Sawyers’ Second Symphony and the works which followed.

Robert Saxton’s powerful tone poem for strings, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, was inspired by the visionary series of paintings by Stanley Spencer in Sandham Memorial Chapel. Informed by his own harrowing experiences as a soldier in the British Army in WWI, Spencer’s extraordinary images depict soldiers rising from their graves on the last day. Saxton says of the piece that “it progresses towards a sense of hope”.

Reviews - 20th February 2022

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.

AIM (Adventures in Music) - 21st February 2022

Jari Kallio

Released online last Friday, the English Symphony Orchestra and their Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods present us with a terrific contemporary double-portrait, venturing deep into the fascinating realms of the music of Philip Sawyers and Robert Saxton, both close collaborators with the ensemble.

In the course of the forty-minute programme, recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, in April 2021, three marvellous and acutely communicative works are performed by the ESO and Woods, resulting in a concert of tremendous intensity and profound inspiration.

The playlist opens with Sawyers’s Remembrance (2020), an utmost sublime nine-minute tableau for string orchestra, based on thematic material derived from his 2017 tone poem The Valley of Vision, itself inspired by the paintings of Samuel Palmer.The translucent string fabric is cast in arch-like overall form, with elegiac outer sections framing more lively middle passage. Closing the score, a luminous solo violin line is heard, woven together with mist-shrouded string hue.

Tenderly evocative and deeply moving, Remembrance is performed with utmost sensitivity and profound commitment by the ESO strings under Woods. A lifetime encapsulated in 110 bars, the score is a small gem.

Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet, Sawyers’s Octet (2007) is conceived in one continuous, fifteen-minute movement. The music unravels with scale-wise patterns and various ostinato figures, out of which a sequence of elaborate melodic statements gradually emerge. There are intricate contrapuntal passages at play, some juxtaposing the wind trio against the string quintet, others mixing the instrumental lines into splendid arrays of harmony and colour.

Here and there, the ear catches the spirit of late Mahler, perhaps, as Sawyers sets forth to lay out his melodic fragments into captivating soundscapes, which take hold of the listener’s mind and won’t let go until the music reaches its gripping, long-held final chord.

A ravishing performance by the ESO soloists and Woods, the Octet is given an intense outing, one awash with top-class musicality and dedication. Ever immaculately balanced, Sawyers’s contrapuntal fabric is unveiled with exemplary clarity and fine detail.

Concluding the programme, Robert Saxton’s compelling The Resurrection of Soldiers (2016) for string orchestra is heard in astonishing performance by the ESO and Woods. Inspired by Stanley Spencer’s paintings in Sandham Chapel, depicting soldiers rising from their graves on the Last Day, Saxton’s sixteen-minute tone poem is an exquisitely intense affair. Altering between quasi-static chordal passages and sections of breath-taking vehemence, the music evokes striking sonic imagery, some entangled in mist and hue, others bathing in resplendent sunlight.

As the music proceeds, the sonorous storms pass, paving the way for a a heartfelt coda of slowly rotating melodic lines glimmering with consolation and hope. Following the final rapid ascension, the full ensemble lands on a resounding final chord.

An extraordinary programme beautifully performed, the latest episode in the ESO Digital series is another gorgeous example of the admirable artistry of English Symphony Orchestra and their Artistic Director, whose contributions to the performing legacy of music of our time are indeed notable.

Production Information

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 7th-8th April 2021.

Producer: Phil Rowlands
Videographer: Tim Burton
Orchestra Manager: Andy Farquharson / The Music Agency
Stage Manager: Simon Brittlebank / The Music Agency