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Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
The Suit and the Photograph

String Quartet No.4 (1995-5) [41:57]
3 Quartets (1994) [14:24]
Camilli Quartet (String Quartet)
Michael Nyman band (3 Quartets)
rec. Galaxy Recording Studio, Mol, Belgium, 17-20 November 1995
EMI CLASSICS 56574   [56:21]

This is an Arkiv reissue of a CD released in 1998, and is complete in every regard, Nyman’s own booklet notes included. The only difference I can see is the lack of the red liner under what would have been a transparent CD tray, and the dark blue colour of the original CD which went with the main colour of the design. Not huge compromises then, to have two classic Nyman works available once more.
Michael Nyman’s first three string quartets appeared on the Argo label, and display a mixed bag of musical and extra-musical origins. String Quartet No.4 was developed downwards as it where, written under a piece commissioned by violinist Yohi Yamamoto – Yamamoto Perpetuo – the solo violin part being kept intact, and the rest of the quartet being written underneath it. European folk elements appear in the material partly as the result of a request by Yamamoto, and so some modified Scottish popular tunes appear here and there, as well as what to me sound like some eastern European textures in the rest of the quartet. Neither of these features are particularly dominant however, and the overall effect is an alternation between Nyman’s more ‘pastoral’ style in some of the slower movements, and snappy or driving rhythms in the faster sections.
String Quartet No.4 was written for the Camilli Quartet, who also gave the first performance in April 1995, the same year as this recording. Fans of Nyman will probably already have an idea of what to expect – there are some minimalistic elements, but none which are particularly extended. The work avoids some of the melodic soppiness which plagues ‘The Piano’ even where Nyman is at his most romantic, but again, there isn’t much in the way of memorable melody in the piece either. The performance is excellent of course, but even as a fully paid-up Nyman fan I can’t say this is his most successful piece. In this kind of purely instrumental work Nyman is at his best where he has more colour at his disposal, and less time on his hands. After a while the quartet sound becomes a little relentless, and at over 40 minutes I think most of us are ready to change discs after about half an hour. This is however great concert music, and would doubtless impress more with the musicians live an impassioned in front of us – as a recording it is more for the die-hard aficionado.
The title 3 Quartets in the second work refers to the three instrumental combinations used: string quartet, saxophone quartet and a brass quartet with 2 trumpets, horn and bass trombone. In essence it proves my point about variety in tonal palette – the waves of melody and counterpoint sounding more clear with changes in instrument, and textural contrast in accompanying figurations making for a more appealing romp than in the string quartet. John Harle’s distinctive soprano saxophone solos penetrate the ensemble with a particular intensity, and with a more compact framework the piece as a whole has more vitality than the longer quartet. With this said, even this work is pretty heavy and unrelenting for most of the time, perhaps not entirely helped by quite a closely focused if not overly dry studio recording.
The title ‘The Suit and the Photograph’ is a quote from John Berger’s debatable analysis of the fascinating cover photo, an example of the work of German photographer August Sander, who attempted to record every possible kind of class and profession in Germany in the first part of the 20th century. To sum up the disc, this is grand music, but not something I’ve listened to a great deal in all the years I’ve owned the original release. Maybe I’m getting too old for this kind of thing…
Dominy Clements



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