Philip Sawyers (b. 1951)
Mayflower on the Sea of Time (2020)
April Fredrick (soprano); Thomas Humphreys (baritone); Brittany King & Amelia Jones (soprano)
English Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Kenneth Woods
rec. live, 17 June 2023, Worcester Cathedral, Worcester, UK
Libretto only available online
Nimbus NI6439 [59]

In recent years, the American conductor Kenneth Woods has championed the music of Philip Sawyers, both on disc and on the concert platform; and with good reason. I’ve heard several recordings of Sawyers’ music and I’ve been impressed (review ~ review). Nor am I alone; recordings have also been warmly welcomed by my colleague, Nick Barnard (review ~ review). To date, though, all the works that I’ve heard have been orchestral; this present disc is the first time that I’ve encountered any vocal music by this composer.

Mayflower on the Sea of Time was commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 when a band of Puritans, who had earlier fled England for Holland to find a better life – and, importantly, somewhere where they could find freedom to worship – set sail for the New World, following in the steps of the first English colonists who had ventured to Virginia some thirteen years earlier. Sawyers’ work was funded by Worcester City Council and was designed for the 2020 Worcestershire Schools choral programme. It was planned that the first performance would be given in Worcester Cathedral in April 2020 and repeated at the Three Choirs Festival in the city a few months later. In the event, Covid restrictions put paid to both concerts and what we have on this recording is the first performance, which took place some three years later. Notwithstanding the issues over the delayed premiere, it’s heartening to read in the booklet that much of the music education project which preceded the planned 2020 premiere went ahead and over 200 young singers got the opportunity to learn the piece.

The libretto was fashioned by Philip R Groom. Essentially, he tells the story through the Pilgrims themselves, both as a collective group and also through a number of individual characters. One character who is particularly important is Edward Winslow (1595-1655). Winslow was a prominent figure among the Pilgrims, occupying a number of leadership roles; he was chosen three times as Governor of the Plymouth settlement. Winslow was one of the signatories to the Plymouth Compact to which specific reference is made in Part II. His importance to this musical project lies in the fact that he was born in Droitwich, near Worcester, and was educated at the King’s School, Worcester (1606-1611). The other central character is Susanna, whose second husband he was.

Sawyers’ work is divided into four parts, which play without a break. Part I, ‘Persecution and Journey’ includes reference to the Pilgrims’ time in the Dutch city of Leiden; we also hear of the perils that they encountered during their Atlantic voyage. Part II is ‘Arrival in the New World’. Part III, ‘Survival and Making Our Community’ is, by some distance, the shortest section; it has some of the characteristics of a scherzo. Finally, Part IV is entitled ‘Our New World’ in which the Pilgrims give thanks.

I have to admit that I have one or two reservations about Mayflower on the Sea of Time and these concern the libretto. Essentially, the singers give voice as the Pilgrims and I have to say that I didn’t always find their words convincing. Philip Groom explains in the booklet that the narrative “depends on the diary of William Bradford in which he gives names and glimpses of character, records successes and failures, big themes and minutiae”. He’s referring to William Bradford (1590- 1657) who was one of the most significant leaders of the Pilgrims. The diary apparently came to light only in the mid-nineteenth century and I think it was a very sensible idea to use it as a central resource. What I often find unconvincing is the fact that the libretto puts words into the mouths of the characters. I think it might have been better if the libretto had constructed a straight narrative with commentary. One passage that I find particularly jarring is when the character of a Native American named Samoset appears, without any introduction, in Part II. His opening line is “I’m speaking English to the English”. Really? His appearance, and his dialogue with the Pilgrims, just doesn’t convince me at all. I think it’s also a slight problem that because only two principal soloists are used the baritone switches from one character to another, sometimes quite quickly.

Though I have reservations about the libretto, which others may not share, I’m impressed with Philip Sawyers’ music. The choral writing is fairly straightforward – though I hasten to make clear that in saying that I’m not demeaning the choral writing in any way; it’s by no means devoid of interest. I deliberately referenced earlier that the work had been devised as part of a music education project. The choral writing should be heard in that context, but the music for the choir in no way “talks down” to young singers; on the contrary, the choral writing – of which there is a good deal – contains music that will surely interest, challenge and motivate them. Though conceived in the hope that a large youth choir would sing it, on this occasion we have the English Symphony Chorus, a smaller group of adult singers (7/5/6/6). They sing very well indeed and deliver a large amount of text with clarity and commitment. Two of the choir’s sopranos, Brittany King and Amelia Jones have subsidiary solo roles to sing; both do very well.

The two principal soloists, April Fredrick and Thomas Humphreys are excellent. I’ve heard Ms Fredrick sing on a number of occasions, both live and on disc, and I’ve always been impressed by the tonal quality of her voice and by her clarity, poise and communicative skills. She’s on characteristic form here. I don’t believe I’ve heard Thomas Humphreys before; he made a strong impression on me. His voice is firm and well-focused and he characterises his solos very well, which is important given that he is required to sing as a number of characters. Like Ms Fredrick, his diction is excellent. The soloists reach a peak in Part IV when they have a lengthy duet singing some lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. I have to admit that it’s not at all clear to me how Whitman’s hothouse poetry fits into the overall scheme at this point, during a prolonged passage in which the Pilgrims give thanks for the establishment of their colony. However, Philip Sawyers sets Whitman’s verses to rich, ecstatic music that, to my ears, has more than a hint of Delius to it. Hereabouts, April Fredrick and Thomas Humphreys deliver their solo lines rapturously, singing with great conviction. 

Anyone who has heard any of Philip Sawyers’ symphonies or other orchestral music will know that he is resourceful and imaginative in his use of the modern symphony orchestra. On this occasion, the forces are fairly modest: pairs of woodwind, five horns (possibly one of them ‘bumping’ the first part), two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (just one player), organ and strings. Sawyers makes excellent use of these instruments. The orchestral writing is a consistent source of colour and interest, not least during the depiction of an Atlantic storm in Part I.

Given Kenneth Woods’ experience in this composer’s music, Mayflower on the Sea of Time could not have been in better hands. Woods leads his forces with conviction and energy.

The technical side of things was in the hands of producer/engineer Tim Burton. I’ve attended a fair few concerts in Worcester Cathedral and I know it has a resonant acoustic. Through judicious microphone placing Burton has tamed that resonance and given us a recording which, whilst not too closely balanced, gives plenty of clarity and presence.  With one exception, the documentation is very good; it includes useful notes by the composer, the librettist and the conductor. Unfortunately, where the presentation falls down – badly, in my view – is in the matter of the text. The libretto is not printed in the booklet; it can only be accessed via the ESO website; there’s a QR code in the booklet. In this work it’s absolutely essential that one can follow the words, not least because each of the four parts of the score contains several sub-sections; we need to know where in the narrative we are at any given point. Also, despite the excellent diction of all the performers, there are a lot of words to absorb. I’m afraid that using either my phone or my tablet was no substitute for having the text readily accessible in print. A black mark to Nimbus for this.

Mayflower on the Sea of Time is a very interesting piece; not only that, it’s an interesting conception too. It’s good that it has been recorded and then released with such commendable alacrity. The work is well worth hearing but I think its importance is greater than that. Let’s go back to the original idea; that the work should be sung by young singers. At a time when musical education in the UK is under such threat, certainly in the state schools, it’s of critical importance that an imaginatively conceived work like this offers the prospect of engaging and challenging young people. I hope that the example of the Worcestershire Schools choral programme can be followed in other parts of the UK, enabling young singers to engage in worthwhile music – though, as this fine performance, shows, the work is equally suited to performance by adult choirs.

John Quinn

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