Nicholas Maw - Hymnus & other works. Hymnus for mixed choir and orchestra1; Little Concert for solo oboe, two horns and strings2; Shahnama for small orchestra3. 1Oxford Bach Choir; 1BBC Concert Orchestra; 2,3Britten Sinfonia; 2Nicholas Daniel, oboe; 1,2,3Nicholas Cleobury, conductor. ASV DCA 1070 (77'33).
Two of the works collected on the disk under review are the results of commissions, while the other was inspired by the playing of a particular oboist. That work, the Little Concert (1987), was completed the same year as Odyssey. It is a structurally simple work, in a single movement, which begins lento and concludes vivace. As it progresses, the themes quicken and become more dance-like, belying the seriousness of the opening music. Nicholas Daniel, not, incidentally, the oboist who inspired the piece, gives a marvelous performance, deftly navigating the work's trickier passages, and always in touch with the mercurial mood of the music.
Shahnama (1992) is an exercise in programmatic music, reminiscent of the tone poems of Richard Strauss. It is based on a series of illustrations from an early edition of the Persian epic of kingship that shares its title. Like many such works, the parts are greater than the whole and some episodes sound more inspired than others. It meanders occasionally and the work fails to cohere as a unit. That said, there are some wonderful passages full of splendid counterpoint and colorful orchestration. The writing is quite virtuosic at several points and the recently formed Britten Sinfonia handles these passages with alacrity.
Hymnus (1995-6) is the most important and most recent work on the disk. The piece takes as its text two early Christian hymns, Hymn at Dawn by St. Ambrose and Te lucis ante terminum ("Before the ending of daylight"), both of which deal with themes of darkness and light. The music, especially in the first half, has a primitive, archaic feel. The chorus has a chanting quality and the accompaniment has a modal simplicity. At times this gives way to bright climaxes featuring fortissimo singing over brass fanfares. Gradually, the music becomes more polyphonic and layered. In the second half, this polyphony dominates the work. The music takes on a more complex and sustained character, the orchestral coloring becomes more varied and rich. The music ends, as it began, quietly and ambiguously.
This CD is probably not the best introduction to Nicholas Maw's music. It is a bit lightweight compared to some of his earlier releases. I would choose the collection on ASV featuring his Flute Quartet and Piano Trio (ASV DCA 920); although if you really want to take the plunge, you might try to find Simon Rattle's recording on EMI of Maw's Odyssey, a 96-minute symphonic work that Maw began in 1973 and completed in 1987.