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Nicholas MAW (1935-2009)
Life Studies I-VIII (1973-76) [39:46]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Spells for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1974-75) [36:06]
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner (Maw); Jane Manning (soprano); Bach Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks (Bennett)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 1978. ADD

This pairing of British works of the 1970s seems familiar. I checked and in fact I had reviewed this selfsame coupling in 2006 when issued on NMC's Ancora sub-label (NMC D085). NMC released it as a a joint 70th birthday tribute to the two composers. However Murray Khouri's New Zealand-based Continuum label was first on the scene, having released this disc in 1991. It reappears as exactly the same product and with no updating of the liner-notes. There's no indication of the passing of these two composers within the last six years; mind you the original did not carry their birth-dates either. The re-floating of this disc into the market looks to be a 'simple' matter of taking down 1990s stock from the warehouse shelves. Had there been resources for a re-packaging then the Continuum documentation could have been freshened up and an error with the track-listing could have been corrected, as NMC did with their reissue. In fact Life Studies runs across tracks 1-8 and Spells runs from tr. 9 to tr. 14. Why the Continuum has reappeared now I don't know but don't knock it: it is welcome indeed, although how it dovetails with the NMC disc I do not know.

Both recordings first came out in the 1970s on vinyl; amongst the last of the Argo LPs: ZRG 899 (Maw) and ZRG 907 (Bennett). It's strange in a way that Lyrita's Richard Itter did not pick up the rights to use this material as he did with so many other Argo tapes. The recordings are exemplary for their era and no wonder for the producer team was headed by Decca aristocracy: James Mallinson (Maw) and Chris Hazell (Bennett). The Maw in particular is immediate, spectacularly muscular and clean sounding in the very open acoustic of Walthamstow Town Hall. The same locale was used for the Bennett but because of the complexity of sources and scoring the results are less transparent. The absence of the sung words (by Kathleen Raine) printed in the liner is a shame but none of the issues have included them.

As for the music each substantial piece in its own way seems to mark a treaty between melody and the dissonance of the 1970s. Maw's music has often touched on lyricism as in his classic Scenes and Arias. As for Bennett his Piano Concerto, Mines of Sulphur (Chandos CHSA 5036(2)), Violin Concerto and Third Symphony (coupled on Koch 3-7341-2) are determinedly avant-garde. This should come as no surprise: he was one of the few Boulez pupils and also attended the Darmstadt summer schools. His film music inhabits a much more tuneful accessible world (review) as does his film-derived Elegy for viola and orchestra on EMI. His jazz and intelligent popular music concerts with chanteuses such as Maria Ewing and Marian Montgomery were always well patronised.

Maw's Life Studies are for a crack ensemble of fifteen solo strings. Here the elite-roll includes Iona Brown, Malcolm Latchem, Colin Sauer, Stephen Shingles and Dennis Vigay. Bartókian protest meets Pendereckian ululation. The music parades every shade of the palette. Sheer brilliance meets vivid intensity. There is competition in the form of an all-Maw Nimbus disc but if you would like to sample a substantial choral-orchestral work by Bennett there is only a choice between NMC and Continuum.

Bennett’s Spells was commissioned by the RPO with funds from the Gulbenkian Foundation. Jane Manning and the choirs of the Three Choirs Festival are the dedicatees. It was performed first in Worcester Cathedral on 28 August 1975 with Manning and forces conducted by Donald Hunt. There's a performer link with Maw: in the classic Argo/Lyrita recording Manning was one of the three sopranos in the Argo-Lyrita Scenes and Arias. When Spells was first issued on LP it was coupled with the same composer's orchestral Aubade. That work seems to have been orphaned by the CD reissue lottery and has not yet found a home on digital disc. Manning is in splendid voice - try the Spell of Safekeeping - where she is at her very considerable best. There is a particularly tormented Love Spell (tr. 13) and a Spell to bring lost creatures home (tr. 11) that looks back to Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers. This is a tougher work than the Maw.

There we have it: two brilliant retrievals from the ferocious 1970s but the walls against melody were beginning to tumble.

Rob Barnett



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