CLASSICAL MUSIC / When it's best left to shepherds: Michael Nyman Band - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
WITH musicians like saxophonist John Harle in its ranks, the Michael Nyman Band is not short on artistic verity. But what about the music? Why, at Thursday's Festival Hall star appearance, where excerpts from Greenway films provided the addictive Nyman energy and pathos, did a piece for piano trio, Time Will Pronounce, fail to deliver?

One answer lies in the complexities of being Michael Nyman. Despite the impression of an undisputed cultural and marketing phenomenon, he remains something of an enigma. A student of Thurston Dart, the pioneering British scholar and exponent of Jacobean music, Nyman also studied composition with Alan Bush - Stalinist, fine teacher and author of a little-known treatise on 16th-century counterpoint. Not much of that commodity finds its way into Nyman's music, granted. But there is an unending dialogue with the past - the Baroque, and Purcell, in particular.

The process is ironic, and typically Post-modern. Remoteness is achieved by an amplified ensemble that downgrades the nuances of traditional performance expectations; by the relentless march of piano and bass guitar, divorcing rhythm from pulse and excluding rubato with the ruthlessness of a disco beat; and by the playfully irrelevant titles.

So not much can be said about the actual quality of the interpretation, except that it ranged from very loud to loud. Either way, the point for most listeners was just to enjoy the flavour, whether in the thrilling dotted rhythms of Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds, or in soprano Sarah Leonard's reading of Miranda, from Prospero's Books. More subtle aspects, relatively speaking, could be heard in Stroking, and the harpsichord piece The Convertibility of Lute Strings. But the basic equation was still in those Purcell ground basses from The Draughtsman's Contract.

The result can be a depth of utterance that flows from a truly original voice - in the recent cabaret-style Celan songs for example. In contrast, the sufferings of Bosnia inspired, in Time will Pronounce, a mood of sober literalness, fitting to the subject, yet essentially un- Nyman. Hints of Shostakovich and Messiaen over vast tracts of bland minimalism were tedious. Doubtless Nyman feels the need to move on, to be regarded by the establishment. The dilemma is genuine, but this is not the solution.

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