On 11 October Gabriella Teychenné conducted Ensemble 10:10, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s new music group, in Nicholas Maw’s Shahnama at the Tung Auditorium. Its title references the Persian national epic – the Book of Kings – by the poet Abu’l-Oasim Firdawsi, completed in about 1010AD, and whose fifty thousand rhyming couplets describes Persia’s great rulers, both mythical and historical. 

The 28-minute work is scored for small orchestra that includes piano, whose rippling solo interludes connect the nine sections. These flourishes ‘turn the page’ between each part, which are inspired by the lavish illustrations that appeared in various editions of the poem between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such illustrations are among the finest examples of Persian decorative painting from the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, encouraging similarly luxurious and refined treatment from Maw’s music.

“My musical Shahnama can also be seen as something of a book, or folder, of musical paintings, which the players present to the listener”, he noted. Scenes evoked include hero Rustam on a hunt with seven champions, featuring a characteristic solo for horn, and a graveyard meeting, which is “an exercise in pianissimo”, taking the form of a subdued conversation between muted brass instruments with whispered interjections from strings. The final scene, ‘A Palace at Night’, reimagines a bustling painting by Mir Sayyid ‘Ali. A long melodic line on the violas goes right through the piece, inflected heterophonically by the alto flute, and underpinned by a sequence of rich and dense chords on the piano and tremolo strings. After a dreamy coda, the piano returns to close the book.

Shahnama was premiered by the London Sinfonietta and Anthony Pay at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1992 and has received subsequent performances from the English Symphony Orchestra, musicians from the Julliard School, the Seattle Symphony, and Aspen Chamber Players. It was recorded by Britten Sinfonia conducted by Nicholas Cleobury in 1999, alongside Hymnus and Little Concert (with oboist Nicholas Daniel).

Earlier this month Simon Rattle and the CBSO’s recording of Maw’s orchestral epic Odyssey (1987) was made available to stream and download. Tom Service described the 96-minute work in The Guardian as “a piece that is both massively monumental and lyrically impassioned…an eloquent testimony to what Maw was all about.” Listen to Rattle’s 1991 recording here.