On Nicholas Maw…

November 8th, 2016

I was very sad to miss a concert that took place in London yesterday, one that I would have dearly liked to have made (not something I find myself saying very often) – ‘A Day of Music by Nicholas Maw’. Maw has been one of my favourite composers for quite a while and the opportunity to hear many of his most important works played together in one mini-festival was a great one, and something I should have definitely made. But I only manage to see my Grandfather once a year, so after a bit of soul-searching I decided I probably should forgo the Maw for a weekend in deepest, darkest Humberside.

But enough about me, more about Nicholas Maw.

What I really like about Maw’s music is the unabashed romanticism of his music – romanticism though viewed through a modernist lens – full of the feelings and moods of the nineteenth-century though imbued with the sensibilities and constraints of late twentieth-century developments and ideas. I admire the fact that his music distils this romanticism, but without the savage polystylism of Schnittke, the dull harmonic pallets of former Soviet composers such as Giya Kancheli or the irony and parody of the likes of Robin Holloway. It is music in the mould of Mahler or Strauss, perhaps if they’d been born fifty years later, perhaps if they’d spent their formative years in Lincolnshire – unlikely, I’ll admit. It is the reconciliation of a form of English pastoralism with mainstream European modernism – something I can definitely buy into.

I also admire the technical ability on display, not technicality for technicality’s sake (such as in many fettishistic modern composers – you know who I mean…) but a real understanding of instruments; their colours, timbres and limits. He wrote exceptionally well for orchestra (this is the man who wrote Odyssey – one of the largest and longest orchestral pieces of the last fifty years) for chamber groups of all descriptions and for choir – in fact his choral music isn’t half as well known as it should be, other than One foot in Eden still, I stand very little gets performed on a regular basis. The Violin Concerto (which he wrote for the American virtuoso Joshua Bell in 1993) is a perfect example of his technical ability, both on the large-scale handling of form and in the small-scale, such as the tremendous passage where the orchestral strings one by one put on their mutes to luminous effect.

I was glad to see the Violin Concerto programmed in the concert – as far as I’m aware, Bell never took the piece into his repertoire (which is odd, seeing as it fitted perfectly with the Mendelssohn and Brahms on which he made his name) so performances have been rare. I was also pleased to see the oratorio Hymus (1996) programmed – a really underrated piece, difficult for many choirs no doubt, but a great addition to the English choral tradition. I was a bit disappointed that Roman Canticle wasn’t included, one of Maw’s most romantic and beautiful pieces, written as a wedding present to his daughter and definitely worth listening to if ever you get the chance.

There are some clangers in his back-catalogue, the most prominent being Sophie’s Choice the opera that was premiered in Covent Garden to great bombast in 2002. With an all-star cast and celebrity conductor it was going to be the opera event of the decade – it wasn’t, and in many ways it damaged his reputation in his final years. But, as with all things, time has passed and opinions towards the piece seem to be changing – in some of the promo material for ‘A Day of Music by Nicholas Maw’ it referred to Sophie’s Choice as his ‘masterpiece’ – it isn’t, but it is probably due a reappraisal at some point. Whether this will happen in the not-too-distant future no-one can say, but for the moment we should all be glad that his music has been given the airing it deserves and that people can hear these wonderful works in a concert setting.


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