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Nicholas MAW (b. 1935)
Life Studies I-VIII (1973-76) [39:46]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936)

Spells for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1974-75) [36:06]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner (Maw)
Jane Manning (sop)
Bach Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks (Bennett)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 1978. ADD
first issued on LP: ZRG 899 (Maw) and reissued - same coupling on Continuum CD CCD1030
NMC ANCORA NMC D085 [76:19]

After last month’s NMC resurrection of ex-Unicorn tapes of Simpson 3 (Horenstein) and Clarinet Quintet [review] comes this richly contrasted revival of vintage analogue tapes made by Decca/Argo in the mid-1970s. Each work in its own way proclaims a treaty between dissonance and lyricism.

Maw treads a completely resolved path in his Life Studies between Bergian reserve and Tippett-like buoyant ecstasy; Study VII is an example. The studies are for a crack ensemble of fifteen solo strings. Occasionally larded with hoarsely violent Bartókian outbursts as in Study III and Penderecki-style slalom, the composer seems intent on exploring every virtuosic facet of the string orchestra’s palette. Study V resounds to the swung jazzy pizzicato of Raymund Koster’s double-bass. Study VI sidles up to the listener; it is one of the most oblique pieces - seemingly stepping outwards from the stillness of the storm-centre in Britten’s Grimes - Passacaglia. Speaking of Britten, Study VIII doffs its cap to Britten’s Serenade. This is sheerly brilliant writing and the Academy trounces the challenge; no wonder as the line-up includes Iona Brown, Malcolm Latchem, Colin Sauer, Stephen Shingles and Dennis Vigay. The players’ strengths are complemented by James Mallinson’s recording work; the Decca team at its most virile and forthright. I have not heard the competition (Nimbus NI5471 ESO/William Boughton) but this NMC version is vividly well-strung and intense.

Bennett’s Spells was commissioned by the RPO with funds from the Gulbenkian Foundation. It is dedicated to Jane Manning, an artist at the forefront of the UK’s avant-garde. She was the soloist at the premiere in Worcester Cathedral on 28 August 1975. She is in splendid voice - try the Spell of Safekeeping - where she is at her wonderful best - which is captured before the depredations of exotic modernistic demands injected a sometimes ruinous vibrato. There is a particularly tormented Love Spell (tr. 13) and a Spell to bring lost creatures home that looks back to Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers. Overall this is a tougher work than the Maw benefiting greatly from the transparent acoustic of Walthamstow Town Hall. I don’t doubt that producer Chris Hazell also had something to do with it. I recall the original broadcast where the cathedral ambience lent the work an unfocused generality which did it no favours at all. The idea of a work based on spells is an inspired choice one related perhaps to Bliss’s A Knot of Riddles. Such a shame that the words of the spells are not reproduced in the booklet.

Two brilliant retrievals from the fearsome mid-1970s. Oddly enough each - but especially the Maw - begins to show signs of a return to lyricism and a subtle renunciation of Boulez and Darmstadt.

Rob Barnett

 

 



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