What future for the symphony in the 21st century? Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra are on a mission to find out, with this concert the first in a project of commissions and premières. On the strength of this showing, the première of Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony, the future looks bright indeed. The work is a substantial and distinctive contribution to the genre, and it was here presented in a compelling reading, impressively disciplined and with a passionate intensity maintained across its 40-minute span.

Kenneth Woods © Benjamin Ealovega
Kenneth Woods
© Benjamin Ealovega

Sawyers clearly believes that the future of the symphony lies in addressing its past. His Second Symphony, which Woods has also championed, is in a single movement, but the new work returns to the Classical four-movement model, finding new answers to its age-old challenges. It is an imposing score, but the music is tightly argued: it even feels concise. Sawyers is heir to a particularly British tradition of symphonic writing, particularly that of Vaughan Williams and Walton, but also Brian and Simpson, though his harmonic language is always more advanced.

The symphony opens with a 12-note row, but it is the most elegant and lyrical series imaginable, presented by cellos and then quickly passed around the strings in imitation. This sets the tone for a work heavy on contrapuntal intricacy, although always to emotive and dramatic ends. The Adagio second movement begins with an upward-leaping octave figure in the violins borrowed from Mahler, but soon goes its own way. Most of this movement is harmonically dense, with sustained dissonances growing in volume and tempered only by the fragments of melody above. The third is an Intermezzo after the model of Brahms, its dotted note theme first introduced on comedy bassoons. Sawyers keeps the mood buoyant, and the throw-away ending is a delight. Then it’s back to the serious business for the finale, which again takes up the 12-note theme and subjects it to further rigorous development. Sawyers employs the orchestral forces with ideal clarity here, delineating the juxtaposed ideas by assigning them to the different sections. Excellent brass writing too, from the sombre chorales at the movement’s opening to the triumphant fanfares at the conclusion. The ending feels a little too valedictory, out of keeping with the serious mood, but Sawyers rescues it at the last moment, rather than heading for a richly voiced major chord instead ending on a simple but intense G octave.

The English Symphony Orchestra was on excellent form for the symphony. Woods has been Artistic Director since 2013 and is candid about the orchestra’s turbulent recent history, not least the impact of his predecessor, Vernon Handley’s, sudden death. It is good to report, then, that there was an impressive esprit de corps about this performance. Duty obliges mention of some wrong notes from the back desks of strings, and some suspect woodwind tuning, but these were rare exceptions to an otherwise impressive orchestral sound.

The big work in the first half was Songs of Loss and Regret, a cycle by Sawyers for soprano and strings, here performed by April Fredrick. The choices of poets, particularly A.E. Housman and Wilfred Owen, suggests Sawyers has no fear of comparison with august predecessors. He has a keen ear for suitable vocal lines to shape around the texts, which are always clearly articulated, beautifully sung by Fredrick, and closely follows the emotive and dramatic profile of each verse. The accompaniments are less ambitious, often simply supporting the voice with held chords or adding a simple repeating texture or innocuous violin cantilena. Elegant and emotive songs all, but lightweight fare compared to the symphony.

Continuing with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor was a stroke of programming genius, the D minor tonality of the bittersweet first movement gently nudging the collective mood out of the dour ending to the cycle. Clare Hammond gave a robust and muscular reading, ideal for the reverberant St John’s acoustic, and Woods followed suit with appropriately dramatic and engaged accompaniment. Hammond has a rounded and firm tone, solid but lively, and always nimble enough to switch in an instant from Mozart’s chordal melodic statements to his dancing filigree runs. She suffered a memory lapse for a few bars midway through the Romanza, because otherwise this second movement was ideal; firm and confident of tone but with the melody always effortlessly lyrical.

The concert opened with a Fanfare, written for the occasion by Sawyers. The harmonic language here was even more conservative, but it didn’t matter, as this was all about theatre, with the brass section positioned above the orchestra on the right hand gallery, perfectly exploiting the church setting.