Nicholas Maw: The Master. An Overdue Celebration of his Music on London’s South Bank

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Maw, Robert Peate, Ivor Bonnici: Sara Lian Owen (soprano), Academy Manson Ensemble, Bruce Nockles (conductor), Andrew Burn (presenter) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 30.10.2011. (CG)

Maw: La Vita Nuova (1979),
Ghost dances (1988)
Robert Peate: Images Part One (2011)
Ivor Bonnici: Four Movements for Quintet (2011)

Pre concert talk: Andrew Burn, Anthony Payne

Maw:Tasmin Little (violin), City of London Sinfonia, Holst Singers, Christopher Austin (conductor), Stephen Layton (conductor), Andrew Burn (presenter) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 30.10.2011 (CG)

Violin Concerto (1993)
Concert Suite from Sophie’s Choice (2003)
One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand (1990)
Hymnus (1995-6)

Those of us who were privileged to know Nicholas Maw were fairly astonished when a significant event was announced featuring a veritable feast of his music. He isn’t performed with anything remotely like the frequency he deserved – a fact that remains as perplexing as ever after this wonderful day. Of course there are others of his generation, Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, and Goehr, who have attracted more attention with their more overtly modernistic way of doing things, and still more who have suffered infrequent performances (Anthony Payne, or Hugh Wood, for example) but Maw’s work has always been a particularly special case because he shunned a great many of the techniques that have been “all the rage,” and pursued his own highly individual path through thick and thin. There are early works in which he dabbled with Schönberg’s dodecaphony, but with Scenes and Arias, first heard at the Proms in 1962, Maw discovered and established a new way of working for him in which, at last, he could write the music he instinctively wished to. This was the first piece I’d heard of Maw’s, and it bowled me over.

Maw was always anxious to digest any music on offer, and had no hesitation in using elements from all manner of sources to assist his own creativity. This isn’t to imply that he wasn’t original – in fact his music has a habit of sounding like nobody else’s. At the same time, it is not difficult to discern some of his influences; in particular he wanted desperately to be part of the Western musical tradition which he loved, and especially that which can loosely be termed “romantic.” Consequently one can hear echoes of Austrians and Germans, as well as British, from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries – Strauss, early Schönberg, Berg, and even Vaughan Williams come to mind. These influences place his oeuvre well outside the mainstream of late twentieth century music, and many of us feel that it is all the better for that, but there’s nothing “old hat” about his music either. In fact his genius was to absorb everything from here, there, and everywhere, and make a language which became very much his own.

Above all, Maw craved melody. Of that his music is full to the brim, but his melodies are not eight bar trite affairs – they tend to span vast paragraphs. Next, was harmony. No, it’s not conventional or ordinary, but a mixture of tonal and dissonant harmony which always has direction. “Tonal plus” was how he described it to me. And then there’s counterpoint too – lines are all-important in Maw. And last, but certainly not least, there’s orchestration – and Maw absolutely loved the orchestra with its endless colours and textures; Maw called it “my instrument.”

In the afternoon, Sara Lian Owen sang La Vita Nuova with the Academy Manson Ensemble conducted by Bruce Nockles. This setting of five Medieval and Renaissance Italian love poems is one of Maw’s finest works and was his second Proms commission, the first having been Scenes and Arias. Maw’s settings of the chosen texts are both varied and subtle, with rapturously beautiful vocal lines and some extraordinarily telling instrumental moments. Movements one, three and five are predominantly slow, and numbers two and four are fast. It was easy to warm to Sara Lian Owen’s appealing and accurate singing and to the sensitivity and brilliance of the young Academy Manson Ensemble; all the performers are current or recent students at the Royal Academy of Music, and the ensemble specialises in contemporary music.

The other Maw piece performed in the afternoon was Ghost Dances, in which the instrumentation is identical to Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire; flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, but no voice. Maw boosts this ensemble with some off-the-wall instruments which members of the group have to play in addition to their regular ones – the African thumb piano, the American strumstick, a one-stringed banjo, a flexatone, a kazoo, and Pakistani manjeeras (or small finger cymbals.) The “ghost” in the title refers to Maw’s idea that the nine movements are all “memory related or dream distorted images of various forms of the dance.” (Maw’s own description.) It’s a fascinating, colourful, and at times macabre work, the individual dances being full of character and the whole making something quite dark, quirky, mysterious, and even scary. The players acquitted themselves admirably.

Two non-Maw pieces occupied the rest of the afternoon concert, both by young composers from the Royal Academy. Being placed next door to the meaty works of Maw did them no favours, although each demonstrated real promise. Robert Peate impressed with his technical command and some weird but effective textures, as well as some genuinely lyrical music, particularly in the second of his piece’s four short movements. Ivor Bonnici’s contribution displayed more classical influences, with a particularly entertaining fast second movement somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky. It will be fascinating to see how these composers develop.

In between the two concerts came a conversation between Andrew Burn, who is a Nicholas Maw fan, and who provided helpful introductions to each piece during the concerts, and the composer Anthony Payne, a friend of Maw’s for many years. Payne understands Maw’s work thoroughly, and as a composer who himself has suffered “blocks” in the past, obviously felt close to Maw, who also experienced appalling struggles from time to time. Had there been more time, it would have been interesting to hear of some of the depressions that Maw suffered periodically. He could be a bon viveur alright, and loved his food, a fine bottle of wine, and conversation about anything and everything. Conversely he could also feel isolated and dreadfully gloomy; I remember having more than one conversation in which he revealed that he often thought he was completely wasting his time as a composer. Some of this was undoubtedly a result of feeling neglected musically, and some because his financial position caused intense worries. I believe that his last twenty-four years in Washington DC were far happier, where he lived with his devoted companion Maija Hay, a ceramic artist. Nevertheless, the fact that Maw was an intensely emotional person is central to his musical creativity; to put it simply, the highs and lows are all there, with all shades between. It is, above all, music with tremendous humanity.

The first work in the evening concert was the Violin Concerto, first performed in this country and the US in 1993 by Joshua Bell, who has recorded the work (review) and whose playing had inspired Maw to write it. This is a grand work in four movements on the scale of Brahms and others: it shares with them much dramatic interplay between orchestra and soloist, soaring melodies, a virtuosic solo part, and it is imbued for much of the time with an expressive late romantic melancholy. If that is the overriding feeling of the first and third movements, there is nevertheless optimism in this concerto too, and the second (scherzo) movement is positively playful, with a rhythmic vitality reminiscent of Walton, while the last movement offers more relaxed and peaceful moods, recalling music from the previous three and including several powerful outbursts from the orchestra and pyrotechnics from the soloist. What fabulous music! Without doubt this is one of his most inspired creations, and in tonight’s performance Tasmin Little’s reading was spellbinding; it is difficult to imagine a more sympathetic performance and the balance between soloist and the classically-sized City of London Sinfonia worked particularly well.

Maw’s opera Sophie’s Choice provided the material for the next work, an orchestral suite receiving its UK première. His experiences in the world of opera were certainly not without pain. His two previous operas, One Man Show and The Rising of the Moon, had been well received but had also involved him in hostilities in one form and another, and he had distanced himself from the world of opera for some thirty years. As he said “it seemed to me that the whole opera world was a collection of ferocious egos to whom you were expected to surrender control of your work and then disappear.” Sophie’s Choice was ten years in the making from start to finish, and critics were divided – some openly hostile. It probably would not have reached the stage at all had it not been for the efforts of Simon Rattle, who had, a few years previously, also insisted on recording Odyssey, Maw’s gargantuan symphonic work. Once again this is Maw at his mature best – with long melodies and directly tonal music rubbing shoulders with tortured, dissonant stuff. Maw’s use of plain major and minor chords, scored in much the same way as the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia, is particularly telling. Much of the music in the Suite is taken from the orchestral interludes which link the dramatic scenes and provide an increasingly agonized commentary on them. Under Stephen Layton’s clear and energetic direction the City of London Sinfonia gave a committed performance of this disturbing yet often beautiful music.

The concert finished with two of Maw’s choral pieces. The first, One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand, for unaccompanied choir, displayed Maw’s ability to write in the contrapuntal tradition of Stanford and other Anglican composers and the Holst Singers performed admirably despite some rather odd solo voices. Then came Hymnus, a more substantial work for chorus and orchestra, which exhibits a more mellifluous style than one usually finds elsewhere. Maw’s intense desire to communicate with audiences – to be of some practical use – is well to the fore here in this beautifully crafted music which passes through shades of Britten, Vaughan Williams, and – unexpectedly – chromatic jazz harmony.

It wasn’t always easy being Nicholas Maw. It is so sad that he was taken from us at the – nowadays – too early age of 73 after suffering with dementia, diabetes and heart failure. He left us a huge treasure-trove of music to perform and enjoy, and I strongly suspect that in years to come he will quite possibly be revealed to have been one of the very greatest composers of his day.

Christopher Gunning