MUSIC / One step forwards, two steps back: David Patrick Stearns on premieres by Nicholas Maw in New York and Hans Werner Henze in Boston

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The Independent Culture
Now that modern symphonic music has supposedly been liberated from anxiety-inducing Serialism, the question of whether the act of writing non-Minimalist music that's ingratiating, expressive, colourful or even fun represents a retreat into the past - an act of opportunism and/or a step towards even greater irrelevance - tends to nag at any major new work.

Nicholas Maw's new Violin Concerto, premiered last Wednesday in New York by Joshua Bell and the Orchestra of St Luke's under Roger Norrington, triumphs against considerable odds, while Hans Werner Henze's Symphony No 8, premiered on Friday by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, operates on a safer premise but hints at things one fears that tonal music may become.

In his imposing, 40-minute concerto, Maw uses his atmospheric post-Britten harmony and increasing allegiance to tonal centres (already apparent in the later movements of his gargantuan Odyssey) as a common denominator - or glue - for so many stylistic contrasts that the piece seems like an hommage to the great violin concertos of this century. These references (not quotations, mind you) come out in flashes so fleeting that by the time one recognises them, they're gone, whether it's a bass line suggestive of the Berg concerto, a virtuoso flourish and spiky harmony reminiscent of Prokofiev, an aura of sensuality recalling Dutilleux or, perhaps above all, the sort of long melodic lines and spacious vistas one hears in Sibelius.

By all odds, this should have been a dreadful Post-Modern pastiche. These references, however, are only surface spice. Underneath, the music is rugged, earnest, poetic Maw. What should be the most retrogressive music - the deeply expressive third movement - is the one in which Maw's antecedents are least evident. While his works often have an improvisatory air, with the tireless metamorphosis of his thematic material, this piece is so rhapsodic that his attempts to use sonata form in the first movement and rondo form in the fourth spiral off in all sorts of entertaining ways. As a result, the ideas of the first movement don't reach fruition until the second. The fourth movement is downright humorous, as Maw attempts to stick with his regimented rondo form and succeeds only intermittently. All of these qualities are presented with such immediacy that the performance - which was unusually impassioned, especially from the usually reticent Bell - prompted a spontaneous and warm reaction from the audience. The concerto seems destined to join the repertoire - soon.

Hopes ran high for Henze's Eighth Symphony in the wake of Simon Rattle's new EMI recording of his splendidly rich, often intoxicating Seventh. Inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Eighth begins with a movement depicting Puck as he circles the earth looking for a sleeping herb for Oberon. The music whizzes by in dazzling layers of blurred colour and, though it's a spectacular piece of sound manipulation, it's also a static sound-picture with little sense of progression. There's the same problem with the second movement, which is a boisterous scherzo-like depiction of Titania making love to donkey-like Bottom.

The third and final movement is the least programmatic. Though suggested by Puck's final speech - 'If we shadows have offended' - it's a highly inventive set of variations that comprises the only substantial music in the score. Even so, the three movements hardly make a symphony. Even as tone- poems go, it's lightweight and purposeless. Henze may charm audiences with this piece, but until he adds a first movement with some semblance of symphonic argument, it will probably be a pleasant but insignificant cul-de-sac in his symphonic output.