Nyman String Quartets
So celebrated has Michael Nyman become as a composer for the screen that it's easy to underestimate the extent of his commitment to the concert hall. This recording helps to redress the balance. The three string quartets to have come from his pen to date are played here with enthusiasm and great vigour by Alexander Balanescu's team, dedicatees of the Second (1988) and Third (1990), and clearly ardent champions of the First (1985), which was originally one of the Arditti Quartet's more unlikely commissions.
For reasons that escape me, the recording shuns the chronological order and places the works in the order Two, Three and One. The result is that the grittiest, superficially least accessible and enticing piece heads the recital, while the strongest and longest of the quartets brings up the rear. First-time listeners would be well advised to programme their CD players otherwise, and begin at the chronological beginning.
I enjoyed the First Quartet enormously. It draws heavily (and audibly) on a keyboard piece by the Elizabethan virginalist John Bull, manipulated (far less audibly) by ideas extracted from Schoenberg's Second Quartet, and subjected to typical Nymanesque principles of variation, ground bass, dismemberment and, when the time seems right, rude parody. Thus poetry and banality rub shoulders; the elation of the opening, and the ecstasies of track 12 give way to some marvellous kitsch in the centre, only to metamorphose into an ending which, within the curious terms of the piece, achieves a remarkable apotheosis of sorts. This is the Nyman one knows and loves.
Dance informs the Second Quartet, which was commissioned for and partly organised to match the choreography of Shobana Jeyasingh. Nyman's notes acknowledge a debt to Karnatic music, but beyond the rhythmic structure and the odd turn of melodic phrase, there's little in the piece that exudes exoticism. It is also short on Nyman's characteristic wit: even the inevitable sugary melody soon aspires to nobility. The piece is full of energy, and must make a marvellous ballet, but as absolute music I found it thinner in ideas than its predecessor.
The Third Quartet is something quite different. It functions as a chain of variations on Out of the Ruins, Nyman's hypnotic and startlingly beautiful soundtrack for the BBC's documentary on the 1988 Armenian earthquake. The result is an elegiac score, sonorous and rich despite the filigree of activity that decorates the fundamental harmonies. Those who view Nyman as a lightweight or a mere joker need look no further than this piece to have their views put into disarray.'