Nicholas Maw: Spring Music, Voice of Memory & Sonata For Solo Violin

Maw’s most fervent desire was to communicate directly with his audiences and produce material which performers would enjoy playing and Spring Music, written with the express purpose of diverting and entertaining an audience, finds the composer at his most uninhibited and freely expressive. Fresh, colourful and vibrant, this score has the exotic, open-hearted spirit of a curtain-raiser by William Walton or Alan Rawsthorne. In its final, slimmed-down version, it rapidly became one of Maw’s favourite pieces among his own output and he once described the long-breathed cello-led melody as ‘one of the best tunes I think I’ve actually ever written’.

In 1995 Maw was commissioned by the BBC to write a work commemorating the 300th anniversary that year of the death of Purcell. Maw soon came to the conclusion that he wanted to round off his tribute piece with an example of a chaconne, a form in which Purcell was pre-eminent. The theme which Maw chose to embellish is derived from the first of his Life Studies for 15 solo strings. Taking his lead from Tchaikovsky, Maw decided that the main title should reflect precisely the reference vocabulary of the piece and so the piece became known for a while as Romantic Variations. Later still the title was altered to its definitive form of Voices of Memory: Variations for Orchestra.

Described by Andrew Burn as ‘a major contribution to the genre’, the Sonata for Solo Violin was requested by Jorja Fleezanis, to whom the work is dedicated. In Maw’s Sonata for Solo Violin, the constraints of writing for a single stringed instrument in a four-movement, large-scale work are deftly surmounted by the composer’s gift for melodic lines and rhythmic invention. Each movement has a vivid sense of colour, formal logic and onward momentum so that the writing, however demanding it may be, never suggests an arid study or a shallow technical exercise.

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I think it was in 1972 as a student that a lovely girlfriend treated us to tickets to hear Nicholas Maw’s Scenes and Arias (recorded soon after on Lyrita SRCD267) in the Festival Hall. This work was by then ten years old and had established his name and she had heard good reports of it. I can’t now recall if it was a result of being with her or the music but I was carried away by the occasion and followed Maw’s career thereafter.

One shouldn’t be surprised that for many years he found it difficult to produce a piece that might be akin to a concert overture or opening lasting ten to fifteen minutes, but in his revision of Spring Music he achieved what many had been requesting and produced a work which was an especial favourite of his later in life. It is curious, then, that this is its premier recording, but Maw’s music has never quite made it into the concert hall or recording studio with any consistency.

When I told my old girlfriend about this new disc, as she still enjoyed Maw’s music where possible, she expressed almost immediately disappointment that the longest work on it is a Sonata for solo violin making the disc, she thought, an “even more specialised item” - but I quickly took a different view.

Anyway, Spring Music is quite captivating, at one moment burgeoning with life and ecstasy, almost akin to Tippett and the next wondrously melodic as in the gorgeous cello tune, which constitutes what one might call the second subject. One should also understand two things as quoted in the unusually detailed and useful booklet notes by Paul Conway: first, quoting Maw, “Music has got to be able to sing. You’ve got to write melodic material which can be perceived immediately and is memorable” and secondly, the quotation from a poem by Dylan Thomas as inscribed at the head of the score, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

Composers have always written unaccompanied Violin Sonatas, but one which lasts thirty minutes? It’s a tall order for performer and listener alike. Maw’s sonata was written for Jorja Fleezanis and it received its first outings in America where Maw was then living and working and where he died. Having heard it, I felt so pleased that Lyrita had recorded it, as it is such a major work, so extraordinary in its variety of expression, imagination and clarity of formal design and direction. It makes demands on all, not least on the powers of concentration required by the performer, but Harriet Mackenzie never falters either technically or musically.

The piece is in four movements: ‘Scena’ that begins arrestingly with pianissimo high harmonics and then moves into several contrasting and dramatic idea, a ‘March-Burlesque’, which oscillates between those two styles, thirdly, a ‘Tombeau’ which is over ten minutes of rapt intimacy with occasional passionate outbursts and finally a wild and virtuosic ‘Flight’ which holds the attention throughout - quite extraordinary.

The last work, which is almost as long so clearly also on a large canvas, is Voices of Memory, a superbly structured set of variations on a theme by the composer himself, taken from a section of his Life Studies for 15 solo strings completed in 1976. He was asked to write something in honour of the 300th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell which fell in 1995. The form most associated with that great composer is the Passacaglia or Chaconne or Ground bass over which the composer will add melodic and harmonic variants, so in Voices of Memory Maw writes a set of nine contrasting variations culminating in a Passacaglia which then uses the theme twenty-one times before concluding gloriously and with satisfying power. The language is largely diatonic and it ends in the major key. It is also no coincidence that the title under which it was first performed at a royal concert in 1995 was ‘Variations in Old Style’, curiously also known later as ‘Romantic Variations’ before its final name was established. Those titles should give you a major clue, if I haven’t done so already, as to what to expect.

This, then, is another enterprising Lyrita release of premiere recordings, all superbly played and recorded, William Boughton being a great advocate for British music and a man who is not frightened to learn new and demanding scores. The booklet notes by Paul Conway are, as ever, ideal. MusicWeb

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