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Classical: Style and warmth

YOU HAVE to hand it to Michael Nyman. Just when you start to wonder which of his film scores will match the impact of The Piano, here he comes with a 22-piece band to play The Soundtrack Concert, an update on music from the Nineties. And an answer: look out for Wonderland, because it has the next big tune.

He has worked in the genre for more than 20 years now, as a couple of encores from his Peter Greenaway collaborations reminded an eventually enthusiastic Festival Hall audience. Even with a bigger band, those scores have a raucous edge and raw excitement that have been gradually smoothed out ever since. That's not a criticism: their fusion of winner-takes- all drive and Purcell-based heritage harmonies was like a commentary on Thatcher's Britain. If Nyman was to keep his finger on the pulse, the music had to mellow.

But not too much. The Piano showed his lyrical side, but it's the association with Jane Campion's scenes and moods that softens it; here it sounded nearly as austere as the rest. As if to prove the point, the rest of the concert featured music from films that are either unfamiliar or unreleased. Without having seen them it's hard to say that the music evokes them - its own personality is too strong.

Concert versions bring their own problems of discontinuity, and A La Folie (for a 1994 Diane Kurys film) was too bitty to make more than a vaguely pleasant impact, with no hint of the film's apparent eroticism. Three numbers from a 1999 Antonia Bird soundtrack, Ravenous, made more sustained and exciting use of Nyman's characteristic piled-up layers of sound.

The most distinctive and monumental score, The Ogre (Nazi-era heroics by Volker Schlondorff, 1996), banished the strings and built its blocks of sound on utterly basic foundations. Sometimes it caught a dissonant, objective solemnity reminiscent of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

As for Wonderland, reports from the 1999 Cannes festival called this accompaniment to Michael Winterbottom's slice of family-life realism "attention- grabbing". Surely an understatement: Handelian gravity and a grandiose melody impose their saturated tone from the start as the music sweeps resourcefully through variant after variant towards a massively emotional feelgood factor.

Such a degree of frank warmth - its expressive power coming from the tug between fulsome melody and rigid pulsing rhythms - is another sign of the times. The orchestral-sized band, richer and rounder in tone with flugelhorns and Wagner tubas, still has the precision of the old lean and hungry group, and John Harle's sax continues to lean hard on the contours of the tunes.

The band try to maintain the severe look, except that Nyman's platform presence subverts it with a Jacques Tati element. Monday featured the distracted walk, the shrug, the collision with the piano stool, and a wonderfully sustained episode of finding the lost manuscript.

Pity Nyman doesn't do comedy scores as well.