Classical Music: A backward leap: Bayan Northcott anatomises Nicholas Maw's early masterpiece, Scenes and Arias, in anticipation of its revival at this Monday's Prom

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Bliss was it in that dawn . . ? Even at a time of expanding opportunities, the summer of 1962 was exceptional for new music. It began with world premieres, on consecutive days, of Tippett's newly challenging opera King Priam and Britten's crowning opus, the War Requiem, and continued with a string of London performances of recent works by the world's masters: Stravinsky's A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer, Carter's Double Concerto, Henze's Antifonie, Messiaen's Chronochromie . . . Meanwhile, under the encouragement of William Glock's new regime at the BBC, the more progressive talents in British musical life were rapidly coming to the fore, with major novelties all the way from such hitherto underrated figures as Roberto Gerhard and Elisabeth Lutyens to those questing youngsters, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies.

Yet the premiere that has continued to reverberate most fondly in this pair of ears is none of these. From the moment in the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August when Norman Del Mar launched the BBC Symphony Orchestra into the sensuously alternating inaugural chords of Maw's Scenes and Arias and Heather Harper sailed radiantly down from top B-natural, it was evident we were in for something special. So who was Nicholas Maw? The programme-note duly divulged that he had been born in Grantham on 5 November 1935, later studying at the Royal Academy of Music and in Paris. And an early orchestral song-cycle of his entitled Nocturne, suggesting the influence of Bartok and Britten, had been favourably received at the 1960 Cheltenham Festival - even if Peter Heyworth of the Observer had, characteristically, complained of its insular spirit of compromise compared with the revolutionary innovations of the continental avant-garde.

What the programme could hardly reveal was just how hard- earned the striking confidence of Scenes and Arias had actually been - not least for reasons hinted at in Heyworth's review. From the relativity (or is it just plain confusion?) of our post-modernist limbo, it is easy to forget the extent to which - whether one liked it or not - the notion of cultural history as a one-way march into the new still held sway in the 1950s and 1960s. Maw himself has recalled how daunted he felt on arriving at the Royal Academy as a provincial 20-year-old to encounter younger students such as Richard Rodney Bennett who already seemed streets ahead in their command of the latest compositional techniques. And though his months in Paris brought a valuable opportunity to attend the classes of the eminent Schoenberg pupil Max Deutsch, who was currently analysing the score of Richard Strauss's Elektra in revelatory detail, they also half-convinced Maw that the Boulez path to the future was indeed the only way.

Back home, he made some effort to adapt post-Webernian serialism to his own purposes before lapsing into a year of misery and menial jobs while he worked up the courage to defy 'history' and to be himself. It was at this point that he received the commission for the 1962 Proms: a token not only of Glock's ear for latent talent, but - little though his latter-day detractors care to remember - of his stylistic broad-mindedness. In any case, the boost this gave to Maw's growing determination 'to write what I heard, come what may' happened to coincide with the joy of his first marriage. After years of musical frustration, something gave and in the spring of 1962, taking as his text a pair of multi-lingual 13th-century verse love-letters, he poured out a kind of half- hour symphonic poem for three female voices and large orchestra of a luxuriance, force and eroticism virtually unheard from any English composer in generations.

Indeed, not a few who attended that first performance, ecstatically delivered by the peerless vocal team of Heather Harper, Josephine Veasey and Janet Baker with the BBC SO in superb form, seemed to have found the work's unremitting richness almost too much. Certainly, the reviews of those critics who were not away at the Edinburgh Festival were more bemused than anything else. To be sure, the piece in its original version lacked two of its most haunting orchestral interludes and ran on inconclusively at the end - defaults Maw remedied in his astutely focused revision of 1966. Thereafter the score was taken up by Colin Davis and Del Mar again, who in 1969 made a treasurable recording - deleted, alas, these 15 years - with the young Jane Manning mastering the stratospheric soprano part in 48 hours when Heather Harper fell ill.

By the early-1970s, Scenes and Arias had not only blazed the trail for a number of subsequent British works of a new-found lyricism and opulence - Hugh Wood's 1966 Proms commission Scenes from Comus, for instance, and John McCabe's cantata of 1970, Notturni ed Alba - but was well on the way to becoming a romantic talisman for a younger generation of composers, including Robin Holloway and David and Colin Matthews. Whether the work's historical standing by now as one of the earliest and bravest reactions against post-war avant-garde orthodoxy entirely squares with its substance is more debatable.

Certainly, part of Maw's intention as he composed the work was restorative: to counter the post- Webern norm of fragmented lines and functional scoring with a re- animation in his own terms of the florid, long-breathed lyricism he loved in the operas of Richard Strauss and Britten (the women's ensembles in Der Rosenkavalier and Peter Grimes especially), and by a revival of what he felt to be the almost lost, late-Romantic art of elaborate orchestral blendings. But even such backward glances seemed less a matter of nostalgia than a means of reculler pour mieux sauter, for behind the more dissolved, dream-like textures of Maw's orchestral interludes and the violent gestures of his more blatantly amorous settings is to be detected the influence not just of Strauss at his most advanced, but of Schoenberg's fiercely innovatory Five Orchestral Pieces.

And in the harmonic dimension of his score, Maw achieved a post- tonal, post-serial synthesis that has to be hailed as something essentially new. This is the aspect first- time listeners are liable to find most challenging, so dense with notes are many of Maw's chordal progressions. Yet his method of layering the total chromatic in strata produces a pan-tonal luminosity quite distinct from the grey porridge of so much modern harmony. Even in the work's elaborately constructed culminating passacaglia - with its subject, itself comprising a three-part canon, being passed through 11 transpositions - the harmony continues to feel not just schematically, but intuitively right. And when the climax finally reveals the pair of alternating chords from which the work began, the sense of return, of completion, all passion spent, is as overwhelming as in any work cast in the old tonal system.

No doubt, the sheer expense of hiring three top-ranking singers of the adventurousness and flair that the score demands helps to explain why Scenes and Arias is not more often heard in the concert hall - though Monday's revival under Mark Elder will be its fourth time at the Proms. But there remains that inspired recording, initially funded by the British Council, which no longer sponsors releases. To whomsoever now holds the copyright: with Del Mar's recent death still insufficiently lamented and with Maw's 60th birthday coming up next year, surely the time for a CD re-release is now.

Monday 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, SW7 (071- 589 8212) and live on Radio 3

(Photograph omitted)