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Nicholas MAW (b. 1935)
Three Hymns (1989) [13.07] (1)
Five Epigrams (1960) [6.40]
The Angel Gabriel (1963) [2.24]
Our Lady’s song (1961) [2.34]
Balulalow (1964) [2.20]
Corpus Christi Carol (1964) [3.25] (2)
Swete Jesu (1992) [3.25]
Five Irish Songs (1972) [15.13]
One Foot in Eden still, I stand (1990) [7.52]
Schola Cantorum of Oxford/Mark Shepherd
Jeremy Filsell (organ) (1)
Simon Jones (piano) (2)
rec. Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford, 12-14 March 2000
HYPERION CDA67615 [58.04]

Nicholas Maw was born the same year as Arvo Pärt, but Maw numbers far fewer recordings in the catalogue than Pärt. In a way this is strange because, like Pärt, Maw is a composer who has tried to produce music which re-connects with 20th century music before the fissure caused by post-war modernism. But Maw’s way is not Pärt’s. Maw’s music has a depth and toughness that is absent from the Estonian master’s mystically-inspired minimalism.
Early influences on Maw were Richard Strauss, Berg, Tippett and Britten. On this survey of Maw’s choral music, it is the voice of Britten’s choral music that seems to haunt many of these pieces. Like Britten, Maw’s voice is essentially melodic and lyrical but it is enshrined in a harmonic toughness that ensures complexity and emotional depth without sacrificing comprehensibility. His harmony exploits serial and tonal tensions; Maw is one of those composer’s who rely on a sense of tonality and key to provide structure and tension with a work, though Maw uses this in a highly individual and personal way.
His choral output is extensive but it is mostly small in scale, conceived for amateur forces. Maw has said that it ‘is modest in size and scope. My aim has usually been the entertainment of performers and audience alike.’ That said there is something challenging in even the simplest piece; nothing included here is merely entertaining. Constantly I kept coming back to that element of toughness in Maw’s music that infuses even the most light-hearted of his works.
The first item on the disc, the rather unpromisingly named Three Hymns was commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and first performed by the Choir of Lichfield Cathedral in 1989. The texts all come from the Oxford Book of Christian Verse; and are from the 17th century and thus provide a degree of textural unity. This is a strong, big work and deserves to be far better known.
The setting of Joseph Beaumont’s Morning Hymn opens with brilliant colours from the organ and choir. This is big- boned music; though part of the setting reflects the text’s struggle to find the living light of Christ, the conclusion, with its florid organ part - well played by Jeremy Filsell – is jubilant. John Hall’s Pastoral Hymn is lighter and airy, by contrast but develops into something bigger. Maw then surprises; in the concluding Evening Hymn (words by Thomas Browne) we get rapt, lyrical intensity rather than jubilation and there are some lovely, ethereal solos.
Maw’s Five Epigrams was written for amateur singers and dates from shortly after the conclusion of his composition studies. The work was dedicated to Kenneth Roberton and the London Scottish Choir who gave the premiere in 1961. The five short pieces mix rhythmic liveliness with some jokiness, lyric beauty and austerity. But these are pieces with a serious intent rather than jokey and must be a joy to sing. The performance by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford evinces great enjoyment in the pieces’ rhythmic, lyric and verbal felicities.
There follows a group of five carols. In the early 1960s Maw had the idea of writing a carol each year. Whilst this did not quite happen, this group reflects his interest in the genre and his ability to combine the lyric attractiveness of the carol with something extra. The Angel Gabriel is a rich arrangement of the well known Basque carol. Our Lady’s song presents the anonymous medieval text in a strikingly austere setting. Balulalow uses a wonderfully attractive melody that Maw then wraps in harmony and counterpoint to create a striking fusion. The Corpus Christi Carol sets the traditional carol with a piano that produces a commentary rather than an accompaniment. Finally, Swete Jesu was commissioned for the 1992 Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge. All these carols display Maw’s skill at taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar.
The Five Irish Songs were commissioned for the 1973 Cork International Choral Festival. Maw wanted to set Irish texts and chose them from the Oxford Book of Irish Verse. The first is an uncompromising setting of I shall not die for thee, an English translation from the Irish by Douglas Hyde. This is followed by the austere beauty of Dear dark head, another translation, this time by Samuel Ferguson. The lively Popular Song sets anonymous 19th century words; Ringleted youth of my love sets another translation by Douglas Hyde and displays great lyrical beauty. As a lively light-hearted finale Maw sets Jig, a poem by C. Day Lewis
The final piece on the disc is One foot in Eden still, I stand Maw’s 1990 motet setting a poem by Edwin Muir. Maw uses a solo quartet choir. At the opening the solo quartet peacefully chant a beautiful setting of the words, answered by the full choir in unison. The whole work develops from this alternation of resources and the whole is both beautiful and profoundly satisfying.
It is given a thoughtful performance by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, under Mark Shepherd. The whole disc is well performed, but more than that the choir seems to enjoy Maw’s idiom and relish both the felicity and trickiness of his writing. And this is reflected in their performances.
It is good to have another disc of Maw’s music in the catalogue, particularly in performances as fine as these. If you are interested in choral music or well wrought contemporary music, then buy this disc.
Robert Hugill


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