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Nicholas MAW (b.1935)
Scenes and Arias for soprano, mezzo, contralto and orchestra (1962) [34:12]†
Anthony MILNER (1925-2002)

Salutatio Angelica Op. 1 cantata for contralto solo, choir and chamber orchestra (1948) [22:21]*
Roman Spring cantata for soprano and tenor soli, chorus and orchestra (1969) () [22:38]**
† Jane Manning (soprano); Anne Howells (mezzo); Norma Proctor (contralto)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
* Alfreda Hodgson (contralto); ** Felicity Palmer (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor)
London Sinfonietta Chorus/Clive Wearing
London Sinfonietta/David Atherton
rec. November 1968, Kingsway Hall, originally released on Argo ZRG 622 (Maw) with Lutyens’ Quincunx; February 1973, January 1974, Kingsway Hall, Originally released on Decca SXL 6699 (Milner). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.267 [79.39]


 

As can be seen from the above, it was not Lyrita who recorded this music originally. In the case of Scenes and Arias, and I still have the LP, it was that wonderful company, Argo. They coupled it with Lutyens’ ‘Quincunx’ a marvellous piece that I presume will also make a Lyrita appearance in due course. The Milner works were coupled on an LP and were quite rare examples of his music recorded during his lifetime. They make ideal bed-fellows.

In a book published by Faber in 1985 ‘New Sounds, New Personalities’, Nicholas Maw in conversation with Paul Griffiths is quoted appositely "I think probably that all twentieth century composers have to define their relationship, to tonality". He goes on: "there has, and always will be different types of tonality". Those comments apply to these works under review here as well as to both composers in general.

Maw’s work has been described as neo-Straussian and indeed in his booklet notes Calum MacDonald writes ‘The ravishing sound of three sopranos soaring above lush orchestration clearly suggests that one of Maw’s inspirations was ‘Der Rosenkavalier’. Anthony Milner has however explored another aspect of tonality, especially ‘Roman Spring’, again to quote the booklet where Milner’s words are quoted "Whereas the former (that is ‘Salutatio’) is unambiguously tonal, the later work is ‘atonal’ or, as I would prefer to call it ‘pan-tonal’, though there are focal point-chords, single notes and motifs which act as harmonic ‘centres of gravity’". Both composers then address their own view of tonality and both emerge with a different solution.

I must admit though that about 1973 I studied and attended the first performance of Milner’s 1st Symphony, a work I have just come back to and which is even more ‘pan-tonal’. I have found it far less memorable and personal than I had remembered. Whereas, as a result of writing this review I listened again to Maw’s ‘Life Studies’ (1976) and Piano Quartet (1981) and have found them to be quite original and a fascinating development of the language of ‘Scenes and Arias’.

I can still recall a revival c.1971 of Maw’s masterpiece in the Royal Festival Hall. It was well received but by a small audience. At its Proms premiere in 1962 the young composer was hailed, quite rightly, as a new master. Why was that and why has the work acquired the status of more talked about than actually performed?

Well first, it is long and complex, requiring top vocalists and it demands orchestral virtuosity. Secondly it will be expensive and will need significant rehearsal time. Thirdly the text is an obscure macaronic one which takes a little effort to understand. In addition the composer is still alive and that is enough to put off most concert audiences. How much more open-minded are CD buyers compared with concert promoters and audiences.

The harmony of the work is lush and careful balancing is necessary. Del Mar was a master at that and the recording is wonderful, even on the old scratchy LP. The women’s voices may now seem to be slightly dated in style and technique; it would be an interesting exercise to think which modern day sopranos, with less vibrato, you would choose to sing this work. Incidentally these women are top-flight singers so I have no intention of putting you off. Personally I have never tired of this work.

I came to the Anthony Milner pieces for the first time and found them immediately attractive, interesting and excellently performed. Again the texts are especially individual. Milner remarks in the quoted notes "Latin verse has always stimulated me musically", so his Opus 1 (what a brave and confident composer to allow his Opus 1 to be recorded) is, in many ways, a student work mixes the Latin Antiphon Regina Coeli with Psalm 130, and the later work sets a portion of the ‘Pervigilium Veneris’ an anonymous and it must be admitted, obscure, 2nd Century text to the Gods of Spring. The second movement which offers a long and contrapuntally complex aria mostly to the tenor soloist is a setting of Horace and the third of Catullus the poet associated with exile, but whose erotic verse is justly famous "Let us live and love Lesbia/ and not care a farthing".

The orchestral writing displays the occasional influence of Michael Tippett especially in the string writing. The Opus 1 showing influences of the Tippett of the 1st and even the 2nd Symphonies from the period 1952-59 and ‘Roman Spring’ having something of the ecstatic quality found in Tippett’s 3rd Symphony written a few years after Milner’s work.

The choral wring is challenging and probably out of the range of anything except the very best choral societies. The solo work is quite challenging also. It is fortunate therefore that on this disc we certainly find Robert Tear (also associated with Tippett) at the peak of his form and the great Alfreda Hodgson (much missed) in full voice and quite emotionally charged.

The recordings come out very well and were at the time of the best available standards. They are of course analogue and seem to highlight the soloists more than is realistic. But this should not create a problem, the recordings serve the music beautifully and anyone who cares about British Music of the period should snap this recording up without fail.

Gary Higginson

See also review by Rob Barnett

The Lyrita Catalogue

 


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