Terrific Sawyers and Saxton portrait from the ESO and Woods

The English Symphony Orchestra in recording session with their Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods at Wyastone Concert Hall. © ESO Digital

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 Diretor, whose contributions to the performing legacy of music of our time are indeed notable.

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

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

Released on ESO Digital on Friday 18 February 2022, 7.30 pm

© Jari Kallio

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