MUHLY Howards End
In the same week last November that BBC Television unveiled its new adaptation of Howards End, ENO presented the premiere of Nico Muhly’s opera Marnie at the London Coliseum. Such events are rare but nonetheless welcome in a musical world where composers stray less from their home ground than once was the case. Unlike the grand affair that is Marnie, Howards End is scored for a small body of strings and piano with a sparing splash of synthesised percussion. From the moments the credits roll the ear is drawn to something fresh and original, with no hint of Edwardiana in view. Muhly’s music is hand in glove with the swiftly directed, contemporary take on Forster’s literary classic, adapted by writer Kenneth Lonergan.
The ‘Opening’ (track 2) is a brisk, well-paced allegretto with busy piano-writing overlaid with string ornamentation, suggesting the laughter and chatter of the two well-to-do families around whom the story unfolds. The Schlegel family are apt to talk across one another, their lively discourse captured by Muhly in weaving melodic lines exhibiting a polyphonic process (tracks 5, 7, 20 and 22). It’s all done with the lightest of touches; yet, as these cues progress, the sense of each being a composition in miniature lends cohesion and focus for the listener. Save for ‘Seaside’, a slow waltz, there’s no concession to period detail, a relief in itself when too often soundtracks fall back on well-known classics to satisfy some emotional requirement.
Muhly doesn’t eschew expressiveness. The cue ‘Empty House’ and his sympathetic portrait of the unfortunate Leonard Bast testify to that. Other cues, such as ‘Night Walk’ and ‘Miscommunication’ live up to their titles, the one a spooky nocturnal perambulation, the other an intense study of the unravelling of human affairs.
It would have been good to have had a note about this music in the CD booklet. For that one must turn to the piece on Muhly by Paul Griffiths in the programme for the ENO Marnie, where he cites how the polyphonic tradition in English cathedral music, experienced by Muhly, ‘can precipitate an unexpected effect anywhere from grief to ecstasy’, a sensation caught so well in this soundtrack to Howards End.