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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Michael NYMAN (b 1948)
String Quartets Nos 1-3
Balanescu Quartet
Recorded Church Studios, Crouch End, London November 1990
DECCA BRITISH MUSIC COLLECTION 473 091-2 [63’24]


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Nyman’s three Quartets date from a five-year period – 1985-90 – and owe their existence to a disparate variety of circumstances. No 1 was dedicated to the memory of Thurston Dart, Nyman’s teacher at King’s College London; Dart had given him an edition of Bull’s keyboard works and Nyman has repaid the gesture with a work of strength, ingenuity and affection. He employs Bull’s variations on "Walsingham" as a means by which to enact what Nyman terms conflict between it and the more hidden material from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet. A series of variational procedures are followed, divisions marked by figure numbers, running from B to L, each separately tracked on this CD. Fig C for example is delightfully affectionate; Nyman’s gentle evocation of Bull’s figure full of charm and the succeeding passage is the height of expressivity. Fig G is an embodiment of Nymanesque conjunctions and contradictions, rhythmic and otherwise and H features the slow but unmistakable emergence of a 1960s pop song, embedded in his chugging rhythms, which is itself apposite parody as the Bull was itself based on a popular song. Strangely, perhaps, I was reminded of Janacek in J and K, Nyman embodying something of the same kinetic energy and driving impulse that informs the Czech composer’s own Quartets. Fig L, the final section, is also the longest, a moving and eloquent summation and a just conclusion to this attractive, playful and intelligent work of tripartite associations – to Dart, to the idea of a freely moving and associative quartet and to the Arditti Quartet, commissioners of the work and champions of Nyman’s music.

The Second Quartet is the one that opens this disc – odd programming I have to say – and was commissioned by choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh. In his notes Nyman speaks of the compositional complexities involved – this was devised to be played live during the dance performance. The six movements embody elements of rhythmic cycle – 4 beat, 5 beat and so on with a multiple cycle in the final movement. Despite its avowed inspiration in Karnatic music the source remains elusive. Much here is exhilarating but also insistent. In the third movement his burgeoning lyricism is abruptly cut short – the abrupt ending is something of a feature of the work and maybe a choreographic one – and elsewhere Nyman indulges contradictory patterns of writing, frequently clipping the movement endings short. The final movement is one of heavy pizzicatos with an aspirant theme coursing through alternating rhythms in an unstoppable motion.

The Third Quartet owes another debt to Dart who sent Nyman to Romania in 1965. The Quartet takes his choral work Out of the Ruins, composed for a television documentary, and unfolds variational material, either Romanian vocal or instrumental music. Throughout its sixteen-minute span this unfolding work, lyrical, controlled, and elegiac gathers itself in impressive strength. Before 4’ it breaks into a faster, more rhythmically propulsive section full of fluidity and flux and abrupt changes of mood – serving only to heighten the intensities of feeling. From Fig D, separately tracked, the high lying first violin and the softened dynamics lend an even graver patina to this affecting, unsentimental work.

Production values are high and the sound first class. The Balanescu Quartet are admirable exponents, following the Arditti with exemplary courage and confidence, and bringing distinction to a thought-provoking and enjoyably moving disc.

Jonathan Woolf


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