Nicholas Maw: The Master @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Southbank CentreThe British composer Nicholas Maw (1935 – 2009) received mixed reception during his life; dubbed a ‘neo-romantic’ his music was in stark contrast with the European avant-garde. The Telegraph obituary from May 2009 wrote that “at a time when Boulez and Stockhausen were in the ascendant, and the sort of big Romantic pieces Maw was writing were deeply unfashionable, he refused to change or abandon his idiom.” The tribute to his music – a joint venture by the City of London Sinfonia, Royal Academy of Music and Southbank Centre – on Sunday 30th October was a well structured event that gave a glimpse of what made Maw justifiably an important composer in the British musical landscape. Andrew Burn passionately introduced the concerts and did much to place each work in context including anecdotes drawn from his own conversations with the compose; much of what he said were the words of Maw.

Nicholas Maw – Photography by Maurice Foxall

The afternoon concerts given by the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble presented two of Maw’s inventive chamber works – Ghost Dances and La Vita Nuova – alongside two works by student composers. These were programmed well and the two short concerts were committed performances by the ensemble, particularly Ghost Dances that demonstrated Maw’s sensitivity and skill in manipulation of timbre.

The main concert of the evening given by the City of London Sinfonia started with Tasmin Little’s performance of the Violin Concerto (1993; written for Joshua Bell). Her sound did much to bring out the lyrical beauty of Maw’s melodic writing and Christopher Austen conducted the work with vigour. The concert suite of music from Maw’s opera ‘Sophie’s Choice’ – first produced by the Royal Opera House in 2002 – started the second half. There was a real distinctive sound in the orchestral writing here particularly in the use of the strings and one felt as if this was music from a more distant past yet some of Maw’s distinctive orchestration brought this into the realm of the more recent. Stephen Layton conducted this with a meticulous approach to the shaping and the orchestra produced a wonderfully warm sound. Two of Maw’s choral works followed the suite – sung by the Holst Singers – first the unaccompanied setting of Muir’s ‘One Foot in Eden’ and the powerful Hymnus. Layton created a compelling performance of both and created not only a warm and carefully balanced choral sound but balanced the orchestra sensitively. Maw’s settings place the intelligibility of the text  a priority and the choir sung with clarity of diction and broad dynamic range which made Hymnus an engaging performance. This was music of lush harmonies and a warm orchestral sound. Hymnus is a worked structured with virtuosity by Maw – the vibraphone and viola texture were particularly effective as a structural milestone throughout this work.

The three concerts were a wonderful insight into a composer that perhaps was neglected for his passion for lyrical melodic writing, a lush harmonic palette and an approach to the orchestra that was reminiscent of the start of the 20th century more than the latter. Undeniably he was a composer with a skill for structuring large scale works that were not only attractive for his listeners to hear but are evidently a real joy to be performed.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. He is currently completing his PhD in Composition at Cardiff University (2011). Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman