Recently in Recordings
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13 Jan 2008
“One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand”: Choral Music by Nicholas Maw.
The English composer Nicholas Maw has been a major voice since the 1960's, with a wide range of works that include the 2002 opera, "Sophie’s Choice," a violin concerto for Joshua Bell (1993), and the monumentally-scaled orchestral work, "Odyssey" (1972-87).
This present anthology by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford offers an interesting collection of his choral works, works whose texts and idioms make clear the composer’s native connection to the English tradition, while at the same time they reveal a diverse and individual voice. Maw’s music is often Romantic in spirit, though modern in harmonic language, while his contrapuntal bent, like the texts he sets, evokes earlier ages, still.
The Three Hymns (1989), settings of seventeenth-century devotional poetry, are alternately exuberant and intimate, with the second of the set, “Pastoral Hymn,” exhibiting a spry quality reminiscent of Britten—the text even seems somewhat resonant with Christopher Smart’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”—and text-inspired contrasts of pace and register are familiarly madrigalian. The Britten influence is clear in some of the Five Epigrams (1960), as well, such as the crisp frolic of the engaging “Andrew Turner.” Sometimes the nod is more in the direction of Vaughan Williams and Holst, as in the folk-song like “Popular Song” from the Five Irish Songs (1972). These examples doff the hat to notable forebears, and scattered here and there, remind us of the rich tradition to which Maw’s work is connected.
Maw’s gift for lyric lines is well in evidence in works like the Christmas carol “Balulalow” and “Swete Jesu,” the latter a commission for the annual Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College Cambridge. And in “Swete Jesu” an imbedding of the melody amid flowing contrapuntal lines in the second verse is especially memorable. This developmental sense is also particularly compelling in works like the beautiful Irish song, “Ringleted youth of my love,” where extended homophonic declamation warmly blossoms into more complex writing for subsequent verses.
The singing of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford is in the main very satisfying here. Complicated harmonies are handled with confidence, difficult figurations with dexterity, and the expression of the performances proceeds from a welcome sense of ownership and engagement. A recording of interest, this anthology underscores the continuing cultivation of English choral music by composers of the first rank.