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PROM 54: Michael Nyman: Anu Komsi (soprano), Michael Nyman Band, Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.8.2009 (BBr)

Michael Nyman: four excerpts from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

The Musicologist Scores (2009) (BBC commission – world première)

Two excerpts from Six Celan Songs (1990)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – Memorial (1985)

Michael Nyman Band: Gabrielle Lester(violin), Catherine Thompson (violin), Catherine Musker (viola), Anthony Hinnigan (cello), Martin Elliott (bass guitar), David Roach (soprano and alto saxophones), Simon Haram (soprano and alto saxophones), Andy Findon (baritone saxophone, flute and piccolo), Steve Sidwell (trumpet), David Lee (horn), Nigel Barr (trombone and euphonium), Michael Nyman (piano)

This is the fourth time I’ve heard the Michael Nyman Band in the past twenty months and in many ways this was the most successful show of the lot. It’s easy to understand why I say this. First of all the amplification was perfect for the hall, it was never too much and didn’t overpower the audience so every strand of the music was clearly audible. Secondly, I have never heard the band play as well as tonight – this, of course, might just have been the effect of the excellent amplification, but perhaps it was the occasion which brought out the very best in the musicians. Whatever the reason, this was a concert to savour.

Starting with what must, by now, be understood as Nyman’s calling card the four excerpts from his music for Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract made a forthright start to the show. Of the four pieces, Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds and An Eye for the Optical Theory are chunky and funky rhythmic pieces – excellent ensemble here – while Queen of the Night had a malevolence I’d never noticed before and The Disposition of the Linen is all clotted cream pastoral and ruddily bucolic.

Nyman’s new work, The Musicologist Scores, is fascinating. It celebrates Purcell and Handel and is dedicated to the memory of the great musicologist David Drew who died on 25 July as Nyman was working on the later parts of his score. Despite the obvious celebration of the older composers there is much that is new in Nyman’s soundworld in this new work. Starting with a real feel of an American Big Band of the 1940s, and here Andy Finden’s boisterous piccolo was most welcome, this was succeeded by the sounds of what might be described as musical Victoriana – so what Nyman gives us, basically, is sections of up–tempo American Big Band contrasted with British understatement. It’s a fascinating kaleidoscope of sound and the words I wrote in my programme to describe the piece were exuberant, joyous, jubilant and triumphant. And that’s the best I can do. Towards the end America, in the sound of a quasi blues, met with Britain in the parlour. This is a major achievement for Nyman and his Band played it brilliantly.

Two of his six settings of Paul Celan (numbers 6 and 3 respectively) were given by Finnish soprano Anu Komsi. Blume (Flowers) (no.6) is aggressive and very expressionist. It’s very uncomfortable listening and the vocal line is tortured. Komsi didn’t seem entirely comfortable here and there were some very disturbing changes in vocal timbre over the break in her voice between a piercing high tessitura and rather ugly chest sounds. Psalm (no.3) is more restrained and suited Ms Komsi much better, allowing her to sing sustained lines and not have to compromise the musical line for vocal gymnastics.

To end, Memorial from the music Nyman wrote for Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It’s a long stately threnody, unrelenting in its grief – it was written in memory of the 41 Juventus fans who died at the Heysel Stadium disaster of 29 May 1985. It’s a very worthy tribute to those who lost their lives.

As an encore, Nyman, alone on stage, sat at his piano and played Franklyn, from his music for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland. Gentle, pure, unaffected, it made a very special and thoughtful end to an exciting Prom.

Bob Briggs

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