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Michael NYMAN (b. 1944)
Symphony No. 11 Hillsborough Memorial (2014)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo)
Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Josep Vincent
rec. 10-11 May 2014, The Friary, Liverpool and 5 July 2014, Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral (choir)

There are monuments in music, and this is one of the great ones. Michael Nyman’s booklet notes outline in a fair amount of detail the origins of this piece. As usual he is candid about where his material has been used before or for what it was conceived. Nyman fans will know the piece Memorial, which was used in the unforgettably nasty finale to the Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. A version of this forms the grand finale to the Symphony 11, but every movement is a feast and a moving salute to the 96 victims of the Hillsborough tragedy of 15 April 1989.

The first movement, The Singing of the Names does what it says on the tin, the superb mezzo-soprano voice of Kathryn Rudge being employed in an emotive extended aria. True, you may have a hard time understanding all of the names as they are sung, but all are printed in the booklet. The music was originally the ‘Hillsborough Memorial’ from 1996, and with full orchestra the potency of the piece is a musical onslaught.

The second movement is dubbed Family Reflections, the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir adding a vocalise halo of magic to an elegiac adagio which surges like tidal waters. I won’t pick at the occasional intonation issue here and there, but there are a few high orchestral notes which pinch a little. Considering the choir was added at a separate session they do a terrific job. The third movement is called The 96, and is the only one which sails close to Philip Glass’s terrain. Nyman avoids this issue by a whisker in a choice of notes which adds up to an initially incongruous D♭ F A♭ B♭ D♭ bass line, the sort of arpeggio you would sooner expect to hear in a jaunty rock’n roll tune. This may indeed have been Nymanīs intention. As with each of these movements and the piece as a whole, it is the cumulative effect which takes you over and lifts you beyond mundane associations. The final choral entry forms another suitable apotheosis and takes us to a few surprise modulations in the final coda.

As mentioned, the final Memorial is something of a Nyman Band hit, derived in part from Purcell’s ‘Cold Music’ from King Arthur. The original version packs a massive punch with the heights of Sarah Leonardīs soprano voice and those sliding saxophones having us all over the floor in a big mess by the time it finishes. I’ve no idea why the composer claims this ‘has continued to embarrass me’ ever since, itīs a fab number. The orchestral version has its own qualities, those heaving saxophones nicely taken on by the RLPO brass, and Kathryn Rudge contributing an octave lower but suitably amplified. The recording only just copes with the sheer volume and density of the sound with everything kicking off in the 11th minute, but the vast scale of the score is well captured. Sergio Leone would have been delighted.

Michael Nyman’s own words in the booklet sum up the deep feelings which go along with this symphony, “unspoken, unsung, unannounced, beneath the surface … is the history of family pain and anger” at the heart and in the memories of all connected with this sad moment in history. There aren’t enough composers tackling these kinds of potent, real here-and-now human events head on in the way Nyman does.
Dominy Clements