Symphony No 3, Songs of Loss and Regret, Fanfare

April Fredrick soprano
English Symphony Orchestra
English String Orchestra
Kenneth Woods

Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony of (so far) six symphonies was completed in 2016, and it is a muscular work rooted in tonal language but refreshingly ‘dissonant’ and dramatic. It has the usual four movements, and is twice as long as his Beethovenian Symphony no 2, which runs to nearly 40 minutes.

Overall, the piece moves from darkness to light, and Sawyers’ musical palette rejoices in counterpoint and some use of the twelve-tone technique, while always having a sense of key centres. The first movement is brooding and dark and ends with the strings playing a twelve-note theme.

Sawyers’ compositional technique relies on the development of initial musical ideas and clearly the slow moment (Adagio) grows out of the opening violin theme which sounds like something from Bruckner or Mahler, as do passages towards the end of the movement, which is very haunting with quiet sustained trumpets sounding over sad string chords. 

That movement is followed by a scherzo which to my ears sounds out of place. It is ‘skittish’ (to use Sawyers’ word) and would cheerfully grace a symphony by Malcolm Arnold. Then comes a finale which asserts itself at the beginning in a loud rhythmic clamour. There is some play between a twelve-note idea and a contrasting D minor chorale-like passage, and the main argument is a fugue which reaches a climax with the re-statement of the chorale, now in the key of D major. The whole work ends on a decisive final note G.

The song cycle Songs of Loss and Regret was commissioned to mark in some way the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, and was originally composed with piano accompaniment. It was orchestrated for strings at the suggestion of Kenneth Woods and is a setting of various familiar poems by Housman, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Gray and Williams Morris, with a passage from the Apocrypha.

The first three songs are settings of Housman, and they are all quite slow and too much alike to rouse the spirits. Things liven up with Tennyson’s Break, break, break, and the folk like setting of the Owen Futility iswistful. The subsequent songs are suitably varied.April Fredrick sings them expressively emoting the text with feeling.

The Fanfare is a happy delight, more substantial than most, running to nearly four minutes. In all of these works Kenneth Woods brings these pieces alive with authority.

Review by Ronald Corp