Nicholas MAW (1935-2009)
Sonata Notturna (1985) [24:16]
Life Studies (1973) [40:32]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. November 1995, Nimbus Foundation Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales
NIMBUS NI5471 [65:07]
Born in Lincolnshire, and an American resident since the nineteen-eighties, Nicholas Maw died in Washington in 2009. As a young composer he struggled to come to terms with the teachings of Pierre Boulez and others, and one suspects that his decision to plough his own furrow will have been a relief. The furrow was a successful one, with a number of highly distinguished works to his credit. His music tends to the lyrical, with significant richness of harmony and instrumental and vocal texture. This disc from 1995 couples two fine works for string orchestra, one of them with a solo cello.
Arnold Whittall, in a wise and helpful booklet note, evokes a number of composers in relation to Maw’s string writing. One would certainly acknowledge the influence of Elgar, Tippett, Schoenberg and Strauss in the Sonata Notturna, but the most striking is surely that of Benjamin Britten. The work, which received its first and as far as I know only recording here, is in one continuous movement broken down into four sections: Intrada, Canto, Cadenza, Capriccio. The last is longer than the three others put together. The work is a fine example of the composer’s highly developed melodic gift, and the harmonic and textural richness previously mentioned is certainly very much in evidence too. At times – in the Capriccio, particularly – the ghost of Britten seems to have been standing behind Maw as he wrote, but it is the young Britten, curiously enough, Maw’s music recalling the more spectral passages of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. And Britten was a master of the nocturne, so there is another link there. Maw is his own man, though, and to call this music derivative would be far from the truth. It is highly chromatic at times, yet also demonstrates a masterly control of tonality. The tonal centre of the work is D, the return to this note at the end at once satisfying and inevitable, yet strangely inconclusive. The solo instrument rises, octave by octave, to a high D, a highly effective close. This is a most enjoyable and compelling work, equivocal and touching, and it receives a magnificent performance.
Life Studies is a major work for fifteen solo strings. This description, however, conceals the detail: arranged antiphonally on the platform are two groups of five violins, one viola, one cello and, in the middle, a single double bass. A much earlier work than the Sonata Notturna, the string writing is nonetheless more adventurous and radical, and features a striking range of texture and colours. The harmonic language is more adventurous too, and though the same musical ghosts hover over the work, Britten once again, in parts of the opening movement in particular, they are less in evidence and better subsumed into the composer’s own style. Like the Sonata, Life Studies also centres around, and ends on, the note D, in this case solidly and conclusively, though with a view of all that has gone before, one is aware that not everything has been resolved. How could it be so, given the title the composer conferred on his piece? There are eight studies in all, and from the work’s opening, played by the solo double bass and followed by strange, other-worldly glissandi, through the jazzy, pizzicato double bass passages that punctuate the fifth study, and the hair-raising virtuoso writing that is the seventh, each movement brings its own challenge and its own satisfaction. The final study, all diatonic clusters and brilliantly dramatic, is perhaps the finest of all, a remarkably successful summing up of all that has gone before. This is a major work and one which deserves a permanent place in the repertoire. It is questing music that places considerable demands on performers and public alike.
This was the second recording of Life Studies. The first, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, was recorded in 1978 for Argo and is now available on the superb NMC label. In truth, both performances are stunning and there is little or nothing to choose between them. A feeling – no more than that – that the Nimbus sound is slightly richer has me marginally preferring the issue under review, but if you make that choice you won’t get to know Richard Rodney Bennett’s beautiful Spells, with which the NMC performance is coupled, and that will be a real pity. Wallfisch’s performance of the Sonata is not to be missed either, so it seems there’s only one solution, and one to which collectors are all too accustomed.

William Hedley
Two fine twentieth-century English works for strings in magnificent performances.