June 12, 2008


Michael Nyman: Mozart 252. Michael Nyman Band conducted by Michael Nyman. MN Records. $16.99.

Michael Nyman: Love Counts. Andrew Slater, bass; Helen Williams, soprano; Michael Nyman Band conducted by Paul McGrath. MN Records. $33.99 (2 CDs).

      For many years, orchestras could count on recordings to bring in a significant percentage of their annual budgets. Signing with a major record label and making records – principally LPs – that sold well could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Orchestras came to count on this money; when it began to dry up as classical music became more of a niche product and the availability of multiple versions of the same music skyrocketed, orchestras suffered financially. In recent years, realizing that it is better to obtain a larger percentage of a smaller number of sales than to abandon recording altogether, a number of orchestras have formed their own recording labels. Some performers have picked up on the same idea and created their own CDs – Gil Shaham’s Canary Classics label, featuring his own violin performances, is one example. But all these niche products (for people who want to hear works played by a specific orchestra or specific soloist) pale beside what Michael Nyman has done in forming MN Records. He has created a label solely to perform his own music.

      Nyman is himself a performer, principally as pianist but also as conductor. In addition, he is a librettist and a thoughtful musical theorist. And he has something of a following, largely because of his score for the film The Piano and the many scores he created for movies by Peter Greenaway (such as A Zed & Two Noughts and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover). Whether Nyman’s particular abilities in minimalism and reuse of other composers’ works are sustainable for an entire set of CDs is an unanswered question; but certainly MN Records is going to give Nyman the most definitive performances of his works possible – with the composer himself fully in control of all elements of each release.

      Mozart 252
is a good choice for people who may have heard some Nyman music in films and are wondering whether it works on its own. The CD’s name reflects its release 252 years after Mozart’s birth. The 11 tracks are drawn from two sources. The first is the 1988 Greenaway film Drowning by Numbers, in which
a grandmother, mother and daughter – all named Cissie Colpitts – play a series of invented games, and all eventually drown their husbands. All the film’s music is drawn from the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364, modified and dubbed over and otherwise altered in accordance with the minimalist techniques that Nyman employs. The second source is a 1991 BBC homage to Mozart called Letters, Riddles and Writs, in which Nyman not only modifies Mozart’s music but also changes the words of some of his opera arias to reflect circumstances about which the composer wrote during his lifetime. The blend of occasional familiarity with frequent strangeness through tonal and rhythmic manipulation is characteristic of Nyman. Listeners who like it may well decide to search for other MN Records releases.

      That search may lead to full immersion in the Nyman chamber opera Love Counts (2005), to a libretto by Michael Hastings, who was also librettist for Nyman’s Man and Boy: Dada (2003). In Love Counts, Nyman uses a wide variety of modifications of Riemenschneider’s collection of 371 Bach chorale harmonizations to tell a love story in which numbers – one of Nyman’s perennial focuses – play a major part. The story is about a woman math professor who has divorced her physically abusive husband, and an end-of-career boxer who risks being counted out not only in the ring but also in life: he can neither read nor recognize numbers. The drawing together of this unlikely pair in a numerical setting (one of the arias is “Forty-seven, sixty-three”) is the point of this work. The recording is of a 2006 production at the Almeida Theatre in London, with Andrew Slater and Helen Williams as the lovers. The opera has an air of artifice and artificiality about it, as do many of Nyman’s works, and it has elements of a fairy tale as well (also a recurrent reference point for Nyman). It is well sung and nicely played, but never really makes an emotional connection with the audience – although whether it is intended to is debatable. Nyman’s skill at extracting and manipulating the music of earlier composers is quite clear. Listeners who believe the resulting works reflect a genuine vision from Nyman himself will appreciate the concept of MN Records (the second word of which can be read as both verb and noun), and will look forward to additional releases.

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