Nicholas Maw at 70

Quartet for flute, violin, viola and cello
Six Interiors
Music of Memory
String Quartet No.3

Philip Langridge (tenor)
Stephen Marchionda (guitar)
Emanuel Ensemble
Zivoni Quartet

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 November, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Flute Quartet was a commission from the Nash Ensemble. In his programme note, Nicholas Maw points out that the flute had not fared well in chamber music writing. Its expressive range is limited compared with the clarinet – and often restricted to the ‘pastoral’. Maw’s own first two movements are without doubt ‘English pastoral’, reminiscent of Finzi. The music is light and elegiac. It is also predominantly fleet and ungrounded. Flute and violin carry the movements’ propulsion, the viola rarely interjects and the cello part is over-discreet. Also, there was little contrast in tempo, despite the markings. The third movement (Molto vivace) – “in the spirit of Haydn” – held more interest. Here Maw attempted to probe the capability of the flute. Unfamiliar sounds – low, hollow, resonant – caught the attention. This new liveliness was not sustained, however, as the opening mood was returned to.

“Six Interiors”, written when Maw was 31, was the earliest work in the programme. These are six poems – in four, the words are lightweight; in two, the tone is more serious. The guitar accompaniment was harmonic and engaging, the vocal line ungrateful and grey, displaying the awkward, angular intervals which were a ‘modern’ composer’s credential for writing post-Britten – a nod towards “Winter Words” – in the nature of a dutiful venture. Philip Langridge sang these pieces unemotionally yet with sober conviction.

Music of Memory is a loose sequence of ‘meditations’ based on a theme from Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet (Opus 13), the theme only being stated fragmentarily and not at the outset. Music of Memory is played without a break and sounds far more conventional sonically than the verbal explanation (from Arnold Whittall) implied. Several members of the audience walked out.

String Quartet No.3 was the triumph of the evening. It is a one-movement work, written when Maw reached 60. The violin opened in English elegiac mode – suggesting we were about to cover ground already trod. Suddenly the lyrical meandering stopped and the character of the composition changed. Stark bare chords (Largo pesante) heralded cadenza-like solos for violin, cello and viola. The ensuing two faster sections were vigorous and awkwardly purposeful. Their contrapuntal thickness of texture had an energy that denied the music any chance of becoming opaque. A brief reprise of the Largo pesante led into a magnificent, terse passacaglia, whose theme is repeated 41 times. This was music of grave beauty and inspired variation. Here was a man who, having clearly absorbed Beethoven’s late quartets, had found his own voice as a result.

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