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Nicholas Maw: Life Studies

The Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner

Richard Rodney Bennett: Spells

Jane Manning & Bach Choir with The Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks


NMC Ancora D085 (previously released on Continuum)
RRP: £8.99 MID-PRICE TT: 76'19''

This re-release marks the 70th birthday of these British composers, both of whom have lived in USA for many years.

Easier to evaluate is Life Studies (1973), a rich tapestry of eight movements for a group of 15 divided strings, either side of a single double-bass, which has a splendid pizzicato solo at No V (they can be played in shorter groups of own choice). Bayan Northcott discusses links with Britten, Bartok and Berg; he writes about Maw's superimposed density of harmony "just avoiding passing over into the domain of undifferentiated textural noise".

Well, that might have made sense in the early '70s, when this music was premiered at Cheltenham, but re-hearing the 1978 recording now, with great pleasure, I would characterise its lush textures as likely to appeal to everyone who enjoys Richard Strauss at his most sumptuous.

At first hearing Richard Rodney Bennett's work is an uneasy bed-fellow. Scored for large orchestra forces, with a vocal solo which stretches Jane Manning (and would too any soprano) it is an ambitious and complicated verbally-driven structure in the modernist style in the '70s of this eclectic musician. Bennett (the most chameleon-like of composers, writing everything from Boulez-inspired ensemble pieces to Oscar-nominated film scores - The Guardian) now spends much of his time playing jazz-piano, as in Wigmore Hall's birthday tribute.

Because of copyright constraints, NMC has been unable to print the Kathleen Raine poems, specially-written for Jane Manning's 1975 premiere of Spells with the Bach Choir. The poetess, who died at 95 in 2003, would surely have been disappointed that her essential contribution to this work is rendered unintelligible to listeners.

It is not a question of diction; the performance and studio recording are as good as you can reasonably expect, and if you find a couple of the poems on the Web, you will appreciate that enjoyment and understanding are inextricably dependent on hearing music and words together, and pondering their joint meaning. Alternatively, you can of course purchase the Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine from Amazon, but who is likely to do that so as to be able to listen properly to half of a re-issued CD?

Record companies like Naxos and NMC are making every effort to make contemporary music available to collectors affordably; publishers ought to join in facilitating this for their writers - in this case, waiving reproduction fees would be likely to stimulate posthumous interest in Katherine Raine?



© Peter Grahame Woolf