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Nicholas MAW (b. 1935)

Dance Scenes
(1995, pub. 2000)
0 571 51784 6
£14.95  71 pages
Duration: 19 minutes

1. Molto animato e brillante
2. Andante pesante
3. Allegretto tranquillo
4. Molto allegro
Violin Concerto
(1993, pub. 1999)
0 571 51796 X
 £29.95 171 pages
Duration: 42 minutes

1. Prelude
2. Scherzo
3. Romanza
4. Finale
Sonata for Solo Violin
(1996-7, pub. 1999)
0 517 519261
£7.95  26 pages
Duration: 27 minutes

1. Scena
2. March-Burlesque
3. Tombeau
4. Flight
Contact details for Faber Music Ltd:
tel +44 (0) 1279 828982     fax +44 (0) 1279 828983

The two works for violin by Nicholas Maw, recently published by Faber Music, are both astonishingly virtuosic, to the extent that performances of either will be infrequent. This applies especially to the concerto. It was premiered in the USA and the UK in 1993 by Joshua Bell who also recorded it for Sony - he says in an interview for the June issue of the BBC Music Magazine that he cannot perform it in concerts now, much as he likes the work, because it would mean taking a week (!) to prepare it and he cannot afford the time. This tells us that a) it must indeed be difficult, and b) something alarming about the state of the classical music business.

The concerto is undoubtedly a major contribution to the repertoire, and one of the most important of the 20th century. It is conceived on a grand scale (there are, after all, few concerti for any instrument that last over forty minutes, and I think Elgar's is the only violin concerto that approaches this length), but it is neither rambling nor overblown. Its awesome technical difficulties are in the end subsumed in its lyrical extravagance. Maw's capacity for seemingly endless melismatic extension is demonstrated here to the full, particularly in the first and third movements. The second movement scherzo is balanced between the spikily rhythmic and more melodic material, and it concludes with an extended recitative (an accompanied cadenza in all but name) which only briefly refers to the scherzando material. The first three movements succeed without a break, but the fourth is separate, both physically and in some degree stylistically, beginning as it does with what seems to be a rather banal theme with an oddly Prokofiev-like accompaniment. This almost neo-classical material comes as a respite from the accumulated lyrical intensity. Though this mood does not last for long, it is not really until figure 16 that we find one of Maw's characteristic long-breathed themes, and this is soon supplanted by the skittish spiccato quintuplets that appeared earlier in the movement; on the whole it is this type of music that prevails. This concerto is a fine example of how Maw's music, while recognisably part of an English tradition, extends that tradition and retains its own distinctive identity. The recitative-cadenza clearly evokes the cadenza from Elgar's concerto; the very opening and much of the scherzo and finale bring Walton's concerto to mind; the third movement often inhabits the same ethereal realm as RVW's Lark Ascending, especially towards the end. Ultimately, however, these allusions serve merely to place the work in an English context; in a broader view, this concerto is a remarkable instance of a full-blown romantic concerto on a large scale, dominated by the soloist, composed almost at the end of the twentieth century. How many will follow it is anyone's guess - there would seem to be more musical potential in Maw's approach than in an ersatz romantic work like Corigliano's Red Violin (another Joshua Bell work, but one which enjoys regular performances in the USA - and yes, it's much easier).

The sonata for solo violin is not quite on the scale of the concerto, but it is nonetheless a very substantial work of great virtuosity. It uses the full range of violin techniques - left-hand pizzicato, artificial harmonics, spiccato, intricate contrapuntal multiple stoppings, tremolando, etc. - but never self-consciously. As in the concerto, the defining concepts are always musical ones. If anything, the logic that connects notes into phrases and builds larger architectural units out of them is even more apparent in the sonata, where there is by definition only melos. It is fascinating to follow the progress of the music from bar to bar and see how each small step seems inevitable, but yet how they lead overall in a constantly surprising direction. This is most evident in the first movement, which is also the longest at 291 bars (why are the bars numbered cumulatively through all four movements, so that the last movement begins at bar 502 ?). Two thematic ideas are contrasted and developed, first separately and then together, in a clear gesture towards sonata form. The first, in harmonics, is a wistful theme, oddly reminiscent of the first of Brahms's Intermezzi, and second is more properly described as a group of ideas, beginning with a motif of descending fifths which bursts into exuberant flourishes and subsides in low-pitched double stopped tritones and sevenths. The March-Burlesque takes the kind of march that we are used to in Britten (particularly, the Cello Sonata and the Suite No. 1 for solo cello), which is itself based on Mahlerian parody, a step further. Frequent dynamic contrasts, strongly punctuated dotted and triplet rhythms, sudden sextuplet eruptions, occasional glissandi and hair-raising ricochet bowing, take this genre of march pretty well as far as it can go in its combination of the spectral and the expressionistic. The third movement, with the epigraph "JD May 1996", is on the whole very subdued, rarely rising to forte and muted throughout. Like the first movement, it begins by presenting contrasting ideas and then exploring their possibilities. Curiously, given the parallels between the March-Burlesque and some of Britten's cello works, part of this movement evokes another cello piece, viz., the slow movement of Kodaly's unaccompanied Cello Sonata, which has a strikingly similar passage of florid melody accompanied by left-hand pizzicato open strings (b.452 ff, and 461ff). The funeral disappears as the opening material returns in fluttering double-stopped tremolando, spiccati, harmonics and a long low C#, pppp. The fourth movement is a ferocious moto perpetuo, whose onward rush of semiquavers is broken up by syncopated rhythms before a contrasting lyrical section. This gives way once again to the moto perpetuo which this time becomes more rhythmically complex, driving forward to a typically abrupt ending.

Within moments of opening the score of Maw's Dance Scenes one instantly wants to conduct it. The sheer brilliance of the orchestral writing, the contrapuntal dexterity, the melodic invention and rhythmic energy, all so typical of this composer, appear here in full force. The four movements are linked together without breaks. The first begins with a rising pentatonic figure (F#-A-B-D-E) in the woodwind which generates virtually all the material as far as figure 10. Then a short three-note rhythmic figure is introduced and the two ideas are alternated before the pentatonic material returns. This time it is extended into a passage based on quaver movement featuring question-and-answer between various instrumental groups, with unison strings and contrapuntal wind/brass. This material is then combined with the original pentatonic material and the movement dies away. The second movement is in a simple ABA form, but the A section itself consists of two contrasting ideas, and one of those is itself in two parts (this many-layered binary opposition is highly characteristic). There is a rising pizzicato figure coupled with a slow descending figure in syncopated crotchets, contrasted with a faster agitato theme on unison high woodwind supported by sustained horn and bassoon chords. The delicately scored B section begins as an oboe theme with string accompaniment featuring a murmuring viola obbligato and developing into a clarinet duet. When the A section returns, the agitato theme is treated imitatively in the upper wind over the same brass and bassoon chords, with added percussion and string pizzicati, but all this accompanying material is soon transformed into the opening pizzicato + syncopated crotchet A section motifs. Textures gradually lighten until a solo bass clarinet is left, accompanied by horns and trombones. This movement, like the first, dies away pp but leads directly into the third, an extended rondo. The building blocks of this movement are a lilting pastoral 6/8 theme for woodwind (which returns is various highly embellished guises), a grazioso theme in staccato semiquaver chords for brass with a solo viola, and section for sustained strings and percussion (bongos, side drum, snare drum and timpani). Once again this leads straight into the last movement. This starts as a rather hesitant moto perpetuo, which gradually gathers force until figure 62, when the semiquavers stop for the first time and we hear a theme on the brass that comes from the first movement (figure 15), and shortly afterwards the lilting 6/8 theme from the third movement reappears as part of a grand tutti, the scale of which recalls Britten's treatment of Somer is icumen in in the Spring Symphony. This gradually dies away until it is left on a solo horn. After a short allusion to the sustained string chords from the third movement, pp, the work ends with a direct quotation of the last two bars of the scherzo from Beethoven's Choral Symphony, perhaps a gesture towards the composer of dance music on a cosmic scale. These Dance Scenes are truly superb music, demonstrating the brilliance of the modern symphony orchestra as much as that of the composer himself.

George Kennaway

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