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October 17, 2000

Modern ComposersNicholas Maw -- Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell, violin soloist; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington, conductor. (Sony, CD # SK 62856) 1999.

If, as I speculated in the last issue, Steven Gerber is a reincarnation of P.I. Tchaikovsky, then English composer Nicholas Maw (b. 1935) may well be Johannes Brahms, back for another visit. Born almost exactly a century after Brahms, Maw is perhaps the foremost embodiment of the musical style of Brahms. Over a long (and, one hopes, far from finished) career, Maw has written chamber music, vocal and choral music, two comic operas, solo instrumental works, and music for children, but has received the greatest recognition and honors for his orchestral works. Unlike a number of composers who are popular in Europe but hardly known on this side of the Atlantic, Maw is one of the most-performed composers in this country as well as in Great Britain. This new recording from Sony is the world premier recording of his Violin Concerto, written for American violinist Joshua Bell.

In the liner notes to this album, Bruce Adolphe writes: "How remarkable that at the end of the twentieth century, in our frantic, impatient and nervous world, we should be given a new romantic violin concerto of grand passions on a grand scale -- how remarkable and how wonderful!" Maw's brand of romanticism, Adolphe notes, has "come back into vogue" with younger composers who are "embracing tonality...and wrestling with big muscular melodies and large-scale forms." The evidence of recordings and concert programs supports this view, and indicates that Maw's music is likely to be alive for a long time.

Maw had the notion of composing a violin concerto in the back of his mind for years, but "it was not until he heard Joshua Bell play that Maw knew the time had come to write the work, for he had found his soloist." Maw saw -- or rather heard -- in Bell "a real romantic soloist," one in tune with Maw's own artistic sensibilities.

The concerto is written in four large movements. The first, titled Prelude, is a full-bodied and self-contained work that, quoting Adolphe again, "unfolds as one enormous, multifaceted melody which...is unpredictable et immensely satisfying." The second movement is a scherzo, but is not at all from the mold of typical sections of that name. In this scherzo, Maw "manages to reclaim and redefine conventions abandoned by most composers," In place of the "thumping good humor or elfish pranks" that one might expect, "Maw gives us mystery, suspense and an eerie other-worldliness."

The third movement, Romanza, "leads us on another intensely lyrical, passionate melodic journey, ending in the clouds," before the Finale, marked by "bold lines, playful diversions, dramatic interruptions, driving rhythms, virtuosic fireworks and...lyrical grace." The concerto is a remarkable convergence of two major artists who have eschewed trendiness to develop their own respective voices -- voices that echo and resonate with the leading romantic voices of the last century. The confluence of the two is nostalgic and refreshing at the same time.

You can hear the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Nicholas Maw on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, October 19 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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