Classical: The long journey Homer
Tuesday 16 March 1999
YOU'LL FIND no Cyclops in Nicholas Maw's Odyssey, yet its confrontations are every bit as gripping. No Nausicaa, though many a "long-limbed melody". No Circe, but transformation, magic and enchantment galore. No Sirens, but a skein of bewitching tunes that allure, just as Maw's Scenes and Arias delighted prommers almost four decades ago. No wrangling suitors, but some of the most virulent writing for woodwind and brass in any recent British score. And a 44-bar melody, sumptuously recapitulated in inverted form near the end by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra strings ("like an old friend," as Simon Rattle put it), that would have had any self-respecting Lotus-Eater hovering on the edge of Nirvana.
Maw's Odyssey isn't Homer's, but he has the gifts of a rhapsode of old. His narrative is internal, musical, deliberately unprogrammatic, yet never tires, but flows, capers and switches mood, fills with apprehension and mesmerises as did the hexameters of yore. From the extraordinarily dark introduction, an eerie Nibelheim whence tympani and gong, then shadowy divisi double basses, bassoons, a trio of celli, then woodwind chorus well up, you sense this journey will indeed be a long one. There is a powerful sense of anticipation as lower strings well up under horn chords, and an increasing energy and urgency pervades the whole orchestra. It wells up, almost puzzled, just as at the close, magically, it will die down. And it is this ebb and flow of Odyssey that Rattle handled so excitingly in this Symphony Hall performance, just as he achieved on the EMI recording which has achieved unexpected cult status either side of the Atlantic.
Inspired, perhaps, by the eerie grandfather clock "Time chord", with which Maw signposts the sections, Rattle brought the 90-minute piece in dead on time. This was Rattle on shining form, a reading of unalloyed wisdom and intensity, and the CBSO gave him of its best. Maw conjures wonderfully varied sound worlds: the piece bristles with exquisite solo work; time and again, not just the inventive foreground, but the busily elaborate hinterland impresses. Tingling bells, busy clarinets, soft sneery brass and glimmers of oboe as Part I gradually acquires a feeling of freedom; subtle contrasts of light and intensity beneath the violin solo interlude, soon eclipsed by angst-ridden trumpets and screaming woodwind. The sense of omen in the air at the start of the wondrously sustained half-hour slow section was palpable; curiously Peter Grimesian chords yield to an unnerving climax after another; the intermediate string fade-down, with whispers of nocturnal oboe and bassoon and long-riding flute solo, was impeccably done. The exposed violins in the variations - shades almost of the Grosse Fuge - ceding to violas over subliminal vibraphone, and the string opening, with added trumpet, to Part 4, were as lucid as anything in the evening. After so much energising adventure, Odyssey's eloquent subsiding provides a homecoming as serene as one could ask for.
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