Arts: Classical: Now you see them, now you don't

THE COMMISSAR VANISHES BARBICAN HALL LONDON
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The Independent Culture
DAVID KING'S multi-media show The Commissar Vanishes, mounted with the collaboration of video designer Christopher Kondek and accompanied by the Michael Nyman Band to a revamped score by the composer of Prospero's Books, The Piano and The Man Who mistook his Wife for a Hat, is not primarily a lament for the desaparecidos of the Stalin purges, but a comment on the processes - photographic and by inference psychological - necessitated in order to expunge faces from the history books.

Stalin stalks like a ghoulish Georgian leitmotif across a pair of interconnecting twin screens on which Kondek's imaging is played out. Oddly, those we tend to remember (not featured here) are the baddies, rather than those poor old Stakhanovite party commissars who struggled to motivate the Soviets and Kolkhozes (collective farms) once the civil war was won.

One such was the Uzebek party, which may account for some lesser-known names (and bespectacled faces) that peer out of King's photo-montage: NN Krestinsky, for instance, who floats up and down like some subliminal image alongside the likes of Kamenev and Rykov; or the doleful, watery- eyed, dog-like features of an unnamed commissar which contrast so markedly with the Guevara-like glare of his neighbour. No matter: they both went down the chute. Yet this montage was an opportunity missed: curiously, it almost breached its own trades description, for it took a full 40 minutes of Nyman's score before we were finally shown an instance of the most telling kind of photo-erasure - the brushing-out of an individual.

Prior to that, the montage focused not so much on erasure as on obliteration: a compelling photographic dance of death, just as the shivering descending motif Nyman recycles seemed utterly apt on its blaring paired soprano and alto saxophone - as if a clutch of cackling lyrebirds were lowering over the whole scene like an aural Death's Head.

Alas, Nyman's blaring continued. Cliche followed cliche, and musical overkill ruled the roost. Nyman is well capable of subtletly. So why must he lay it on with a trowel, even in the gorgeously textured low tessitura Celan Songs of the concert's first half? The band's cloudy playing, with Nyman at the piano, seemed (strings apart) bitty and under-rehearsed - by contrast, the meticulous clarity of their opening bars to The Commissar Vanishes seemed spot-on.

Michael Nyman's `The Fall of Icarus' and `The Commissar Vanishes' are available on a double CD

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