"The best birthday I've ever had," proclaimed Nicholas Maw to a half-full Wigmore Hall. Though fellow composers were well represented in the audience, Maw has long found his public in the US, and in Berlin and Vienna, where Sophie's Choice, his opera that was so equivocally received at Covent Garden, is entering the repertoire.
Maw is one of those composers who fill the gaps in musical history. If the evolution of styles after Mahler had followed Strauss rather than Schoenberg, he would be at the centre of the mainstream. He sounds more and more part of the mid-20th-century continental practice of polishing skills as highly as possible - he was a pupil of Nadia Bou-langer - and less akin to the splashy assertions of ego that catch English ears.
This concert was one of several fairly low-key Maw celebrations this season, a survey of his works for small groups. Beautifully varied in texture, they mostly share a sense of transformation, putting a musical idea before your ears, taking it through various adventures and, when it returns, making you hear it anew in the light of experience. The young Emanuel Ensemble's concentrated, careful performance of his Flute Quartet brought out this character straight away. Starting with modal phrases that echo Debussy, it soon sets off on its own purposeful but elegant path. When Maw interrupted his efforts to produce a fast finale as a tempting vista loomed, the players were able to keep it sounding all of a piece.
Philip Langridge caught the bleak atmosphere of the early Hardy settings, Six Interiors - a disenchanted meditation on old age. Langridge's subtly varied vocal timbres kept it intimate and unsettled, reserving intensity for key moments and thinning out for the "tin-like tones" of a damaged church bell. His guitar accompanist, Stephen Marchionda, gave the performance of the evening in Music of Memory.
Rightly there was a string quartet: Maw, along with John McCabe, has provided the core of the medium's English repertoire after Britten and Tippett. No 3, deftly presented by the Zivoni String Quartet, fuses five sections into a single elaborate movement.