Six Celan Songs
The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Michael Nyman Band [Celan Songs]
Sarah Leonard (soprano)
Recorded in Angel Studios, London on 28-29 November 2005 [Celan Songs] and 20 January 2006
Acts of Beauty
Exit no Exit
Cristina Zavalloni (soprano)
Carlo Boccadoro [Acts of Beauty]
Andrew Sparling (bass clarinet)
Recorded 4 November 2004 at Officine Meccaniche, Milan [Acts of Beauty]; and 24-25 April 2006, Angel Studios, London
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: Please see above
Duration: Please see above
Michael Nyman’s self-owned record label gathers strength with two issues of predominantly vocal works. Here is a chance to hear Nyman in serious mode, with sombre settings of Paul Celan, or in more playful form with the light-hearted “Exit no Exit”.
“Acts of Beauty” first, though, and extremely diverse it is. Nyman has constructed a song-cycle seemingly from the cutting room floor in its inclusion of texts from the Italian Renaissance, his own opera “Man and Boy: Dada”, Dziga Vertov, a documentary maker, and a Martial epigram about the weight of a penis.
No matter for Cristina Zavalloni, who gives as good as she gets (which seems to be not very much, in the epigram!) and Nyman’s music supplies fresh melodic content. The jaunty phrase book-ending the work is particularly hard to shake off, though it sounds a little empty when intruding on the sweetly ecstatic coda of ‘Life’s chaos’, where Zavalloni copes admirably with the demands made on the lower register. Nyman’s use of open fifths brings the Renaissance dance vividly to life in ‘Due figliuole di un contadino’, while the scoring throughout is a familiar chamber ensemble blend of strings and wind.
“Exit no Exit” also seems to be cobbled together, this time an instrumental version of “Beckham Crosses, Nyman Scores”, where the composer took John Motson’s voice and scored it in the manner of Steve Reich’s Different Trains. In its new format a closer parallel is found in John Adams’s Book of Alleged Dances, with the riff-play of bass clarinet and string quartet throwing sprightly motifs and danceable rhythms to and fro. Nyman chooses not to develop the themes too far – restricted by the original commentary, no doubt, and an enjoyable suite of dance pieces is the product, if not as substantial in end content. Andrew Sparling’s bass clarinet lets out a playful rasp now and then, ably supported by the Nyman Quartet.
The Celan Songs are another story altogether, six settings of the holocaust poet that deal with flower symbolism, originally set by Nyman for Ute Lemper. Here the composer’s harmonic language darkens considerably, with much of the material in the minor key, and in Hilary Summers he has a fulsome contralto voice to lend weight to the text.
Occasionally Nyman’s scoring can be over-dense, but this tends to be in the spirit of the text, and is overcome by moments of real beauty. The softly repeated loops intertwining with Summers’s low register on ‘Corona’ are a case in point, the song ending with a quietly lapping elegy on violins. ‘Nocturnally Pouting’ is best of all, a slow but steady pattern accompanying Summers’s effortlessly held long notes. This then expands as the same loop presses on with greater tempo and resolve, finally achieving its victory in a major key resolution at the death.
Mary Kelly’s text for “Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi” has a far more direct concern with war, telling of a Kosovan infant left for dead but fostered until his safe return by Serbians.
Sarah Leonard exhibits effortless control in this performance, whether soaring above sighing string motifs or in the high rendition of ‘his downy crop’, where she describes the young boy with affection until the string quartet accompaniments bring crisp figurations to snap out of the reverie. With a convincing close this makes a satisfying vocal piece.
One small rankle – translations are not printed alongside the original text, which means a lot of page flicking in the Celan songs. Otherwise, the two discs do much to advocate Nyman’s prowess in song; the Celan settings in particular one of his most accomplished vocal scores.