Michael NYMAN (b. 1948)
War Work: Eight Songs with Film
The Making of Faces [2:20]
Dreaming of Home [2:20]
The Engine Turns [3:05]
The Effects of Gas [3:21]
Song 1: ‘Urtod’ [4:22]
Song 2: ‘What’s Left of the Soldier-man’ [2:52]
Song 3: ‘Kinder vor einem Londener armenspeise Haus’ [3:39]
Song 4: ‘Haidekampf’ [3:30]
Poppenkörper [4:06]
Picabia’s Pigeons [3:38]
The Dead are Sad Enough in their Eternal Silence [2:31]
Playing at Soldiering [3:08]
The Mechanical Horse [5:44]
A la Pensée des Absents [2:36]
Song 5: ‘L’Adieu du cavalier [3:25]
Song 6: ‘For Just One Night’ [4:23]
Song 7: ‘Louse Hunting’ [2:41]
Song 8: ‘Abscheid’ [5:29]
‘Urtod’ [4:22]
Michael Nyman Band
Hilary Summers (contralto)
rec. November 2014, Angel Studios 3, London

Michael Nyman describes his Eight Songs as “essentially a song cycle presented in two groups of 4 songs, preceded and separated by instrumental music.” Orchestrated in the full sonorities of the Michael Nyman Band with its distinctive blend of winds and strings, the instrumental pieces tap into worlds of nostalgia and expressive reflection both atmospheric and emphatic, the implications of which can be gleaned from the clarity of the titles. The first group of instrumental pieces is rounded off with a powerful statement, The Effects of Gas, in which instruments pile on top of each other and the dynamic rises uncompromisingly.

The actual songs are set to word “by mostly-unknown World War 1 poets”, all of whom - bar one - were killed in that war. Nyman returns to his roots, or one of his many roots with these songs, taking moments and movements from our Western musical ancestry to create new music as he has done in the past with Purcell, Mozart and others. Urtod on a remarkable text by August Stramm, uses the Kyrie from Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle to make a piece with an inexorable, measured tread over which the single words of the text deliver their own punctuation. What’s left of the Soldier-man uses the second movement from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Kinder vor einem Londener armenspeise Haus takes us even further back, to music by Orlando Gibbons. These are instrumented in a way that blurs the boundaries between concert-hall and music-theatre or even some kind of distorted period café entertainment, reminding one a little of Kurt Weill. Perhaps this also has to do with the German language, but either way there is no way of avoiding the confrontational nature of hearing Stramm’s Haidekampf sung over a weighty version of the second movement of Schubert’s Sonata No. 15.

Ground bass, another of Nyman’s favourite techniques, rears darkly in the remarkable Puppenkörper, while the flight of Picabia’s Pigeons can be heard as a nod towards another Peter Greenaway collaborator, Louis Andriessen. Brief but no less startlingly grim is The Dead are Sad Enough in their Eternal Silence, while The Mechanical Horse has plenty of rhythmic bite to quicken the pulse.

The second group of songs starts with an Apollinaire text, L’Adieu du cavalier, set over music by John Bull to create a compelling and anthem-like piece to go with the deeply ironic “Oh God! what a lovely war” sentiment. Géza Gyóni’s For Just One Night uses the middle section of Chopin’s Prelude No. 15 in D flat to deliver words like “Just for one night: When the flaming throat of hell opens up, And blood flows on the ground and blood flows from the tree …” No less frightful is Isaac Rosenberg’s Louse Hunting, though Nyman’s use of the first movement of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A lulls us into a major-key comfort-zone. The final Abschied on words by Alfred Lichtenstein, takes the opening of the second movement of Schubert’s Sonata No. 15 to create a lullaby to which we listen with teeth clenched, fighting back the tears. There is a ‘coda’ in which we return to Urtod in a more dynamically suppressed but equally powerful re-recording.

I wasn’t so keen on Nyman’s song album The Glare, but to my mind this is very much a return to a field in which his idiom thrives and can develop at its best. Hilary Summers’ rich contralto voice is perfect for these songs, and she blends with and rises from within the instrumental textures superbly. The actual film War Work is mostly edited from historical footage and has a teaser on YouTube here.

Dominy Clements
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