The ESO and Woods unveil Adrian Williams’s astounding Symphony No. 1

The English Symphony Orchestra in session with their Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods. © ESO Digital

The latest installment in the English Symphony Orchestra’s marvellous online series with their Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Kenneth Woods presents us with a tremendous premiere recording of Adrian Williams’s stunning Symphony No. 1 (2018-21). Commissioned by Woods and the orchestra, as a part of their 21st Century Symphony Project, the score was, for the most part, written in 2018-2019, followed by a series of revisions carried out over the next two years.

Scored for an orchestra of duple winds, with piccolo and cor anglais added, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, keyboards, harp and strings, the four-movement, fifty-minute symphony is an astounding affair; impressively devised both in terms of architecture and narrative.

The symphony is launched with a substantial, fourteen-minute Maestoso – Stridente first movement. Opening with a short introduction for violins and violas, and followed by a response from full orchestra, the movement is built upon two interrelated main themes, which keep recurring throughout the symphony. As the movement unravels, the musical material is transformed into the most spellbinding guises, taking some unexpected turns here and there.

Midway into the movement, there is a wonderfully meditative passage, where the textures are beautifully thinned down into almost Bernard Herrmann-like economy. From here, the music builds up to fully-fledged orchestral tapestry of extraordinary vividness, rounding off the movement with captivating intensity.

The second movement is a virtuoso scherzo, altering between 3/8, 4/8 and 5/8. There’s plenty of sardonic bite in the textures, as the musical lines venture throughout the orchestra. A case in point of ingenious instrumentation and intricate rhythms, the scherzo is a thrilling movement for start to finish.

In contrast to the tour-de-force scherzo, the slow movement, marked lento, is conceived as an extended lament of sublime intensity, rooted in the composer’s emotional response to the harrowing images of the wild fires in Australia. The movement opens with a mist-hued introduction for strings and clarinet, joined by solo cello, cor anglais, harp and trumpet. Airy flutes sound their calls over sustained strings, and the music almost comes to a standstill.

At the core of the movement, the opening material is developed into deeply moving instrumental statements of sorrow and contemplation, with anguished overtones. The most sublime passage for flute, cor anglais, harp and strings ensues, eventually landing on a double bass drone. Closing the slow movement, there is a simple but striking instrumental afterthought; a brief string passage, followed by a woodwind echo, evaporating into silence.

The symphony concludes with an astonishing seventeen-minute Finale. Opening with rumbling double-basses and contrabassoon, joined by full orchestra on the following pages, the music is awash with sonic energy. As the Finale proceeds, delicate textures take over, giving rise to a dream-like sequence, echoing the soundscapes of the previous movement. Reflective and translucent, the orchestra fabric builds up to terrific sonic fantasy, one of the absolute highlights of Williams’s score.

The contemplative mood is interrupted by murmuring bassoons and timpani, joined by agitated trumpet heralds. A vehement orchestral passage ensues, with tensions mounting alongside colliding musical lines. For a moment, the sonic storm seems to be cooling down into an elegiac passage, but that is not to be. Another formidable build-up ensues and the symphony closes with staggering waves of sound crashing against the rocks of a distant shore.

A powerful outing for a substantial symphonic statement, the ESO and Woods performance is one of gripping intensity and fine-tuned detail. There are beautiful solo passages beyond count, and the tutti sections present us with an orchestra of gorgeous sonorities. Compellingly shaped by Woods, the symphony’s dedicatee, the score is unraveled with extraordinary intensity and awe-inspiring beauty. A powerful addition to the 21st century repertoire, the unveiling of Adrian Williams’s Symphony No. 1 is one to remember and cherish.

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Adrian Williams: Symphony No. 1 (2018-21)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 1-2 December 2021

First released on ESO Digital on 25 March 2022

© Jari Kallio

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