Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Hammering it out - BBC Proms: Michael Nyman

I know I bleat on about the Albert Hall, but I quite honestly never tire of being in that space and last night I found myself there once again for another of the BBC Proms. Last time was of course for the magic of the MGM Musicals with a vast orchestra, choir and vocalists on stage; this time, however, was a much smaller affair, though no less energetic methinks. Prom 54 saw the indomitable Michael Nyman take to the stage with his eleven-strong band to perform a late night set of music from his film scores and otherwise. A concert by the Michael Nyman Band is always something of a rambunctious affair, the music - and indeed the man himself - somehow unapologetic in their ‘down to business’ approach. Nyman took his seat at the piano with little fanfare and with a wave of his right hand immediately struck up the band for four selections from his 1982 score for The Draughtsman’s Contract. I’m always equally entertained and mystified by the music for this particular film, as it relentlessly and repetitively frolics along unashamedly loud and proud. There’s an air of naughtiness about it somehow, with the flagrant bassy piano bashing along and the brass having a whale of a time until they’re all seemingly rudely stopped in their musical tracks with the classic Nyman cadence; then comes that moment when nothingness pervades and you realise how brilliantly coloured the air was just moments before.

The uninterrupted set continued with a new piece commissioned by the BBC especially for the concert. ‘The Musicologist Scores’ was a lengthy (20 minutes) introspection of sorts, as the composer went back to his roots as a musicologist, deconstructing elements of music by Handel and Purcell, recycling them into his own composition. It was an entirely cyclical affair – as much of Nyman’s music tends to be – with a seemingly unchanging stream of notes, altering slightly with a new angle, a variation here, a new layer there, until it returns to the original root of the piece. It is of course deceptively difficult music, wholly mathematical, rhythmic and brilliantly structured; that said, when it’s chugging along for twenty minutes one’s appreciation for the artistry is overshadowed by a wandering mind and a sore bottom. It is of course hugely experimental music and Nyman’s tenacity in performing it should be admired if nothing else – we were indeed a captive audience and even the gentleman seated next to me following a copy of the printed score gave up at about the ten minute mark.

‘Six Celan Songs’ is a song cycle composed in 1990, based on the intense poetry of Paul Celan. Two of the six songs were presented, and the band were joined by Finnish soprano Anu Komsi who delivered both ‘Blume (No. 6)’ and ‘Psalm (No. 3) with an intensity – in German - that matched the words. It was the latter song which left the deepest impression though, its haunting lyricism overshadowing the much darker former piece, itself coming across with a dreary pessimism – bizarre when the title translates literally as ‘Flower’.

The final programmed piece was the ever-brilliant ‘Memorial’ from Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Once again Nyman’s hat is tipped firmly in the direction of Handel and Purcell, with the stomping bass line seemingly getting ever stompier and the petulant violin seemingly intensifying as if played through gritted teeth. It’s wonderfully steely music and never fails to, perhaps oddly, raise a smile – memories of cooked flesh and all kinds of arty eroticism coming to mind no doubt, not to mention the brilliantly vile Thief (Michael Gambon) who orders said meal (the Lover of the title) to teach the straying Wife (Helen Mirren) a lesson. Classic.

So it was definitely short, not particularly sweet, but certainly a lot to get your teeth into. Nyman’s music is ever challenging, always knowing, but at the same time beautiful somehow. His only encore – ‘Franklyn’, from Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland – proved this in spades; a simple and elegant denouement which was definitely the calm after the storm. Hurricane Michael perhaps.

The Proms season continues until September 12th and you can catch all the action at, not to mention nightly broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and occasionally on BBC Television. See the website for full details!

With many thanks to Bethan Bide at BBC Proms.

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