Michael Nyman at the BarbicanCultureMusicLive music
Michael Nyman is the ultimate British film composer. His career begins and ends beyond the cinematic realm, but his compositions are visually evocative, regardless of any motion picture affiliations. Nyman’s name and music, though, are defined by three moments: first and foremost the partnership with Peter Greenaway, the encounter with Jane Campion for The Piano, and his work on the soundtrack of Gattaca.
Last night at the Barbican the concert began with Witness 1. Nyman wrote it in 1976 for his own film of the same name, after a 12-year break from composing, which shows pictures of French police deporting gypsies in 1944 – a theme that is more relevant than ever. The composer was on stage with his band, and the programme was a journey through his 40-year career.
The first highlight was Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds, from Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract. Based on the ground bass of Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur (Prelude to Act III, Scene 2), this piece represents impeccably the playfulness of Nyman who is too often associated with heartrending compositions.
The Greenaway segment continued with Drowning by Numbers (Fish Beach, Knowing the Ropes) and Prospero’s Books (Prospero’s Magic, Miranda, Blume), which ended the lengthy collaboration between the two British artists. If in Chasing Sheep we can find the composer’s playfulness, Prospero’s Magic embodies the dramatic side of Nyman, even though the mellow acoustic of the Barbican Hall failed to deliver its stingingness.
The second half of the show didn’t follow the programme to the letter. Sadly, the peak of his collaboration with Michael Winterbottom – Wonderland – didn’t get the anticipated space. While Franklyn was briefly hinted at, Debbie, which is a true masterpiece that sees sadness evolve into uplifting emotions in an orchestral explosion, was completely omitted.
Two years ago in Venice I was talking with Andrew Niccol about the work of Nyman on Gattaca‘s soundtrack and he still couldn’t believe what he did. Rarely do soundtracks so full of character combine deeply with the film, to the point that they couldn’t exist without each other.
The revelation of the night was Apri le Coscie, Accio Ch’io Veggia Bene, sung by the amazing soprano (and long-time collaborator) Marie Angel with peerless intensity. It’s part of I Sonetti Lussuriosi, eight operatic songs written for her in 2007, and it’s a wonderful display of Nyman’s unique use of strings and horns, strengthened by the power of Angel’s voice.
The lack of The Heart Asks Pleasure First from the programme came as a surprise but the encore promptly redressed the situation. The sound of the composer’s piano resonated full and rich throughout the hall, reminding us how much his music is beautiful and necessary.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
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