This collection brings together three previously released discs primarily devoted to Michael Nyman's vocal music. While the influences on Nyman's vocal writing are transparent -- John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, with some Kurt Weill thrown in -- the synthesis he achieves is often so strong and appealing that questions of originality become irrelevant. The set is notable for the performances by three remarkable singers: Marie Angel, Cristina Zavalloni, and Hilary Summers.
Eight Lust Songs comes with a Parental Advisory Warning for explicit content, but the songs are in Italian, so only Italian speakers are going to have the opportunity to be offended (unless you read the translations in the booklet). Nyman describes the settings of these explicit sixteenth century poems by Pietro Aretino -- essentially bedroom dialogues between lovers -- as a natural progression in his work, which, since his days as a student, has frequently been concerned with sex. He deals with the texts so abstractly that the music itself isn't at all salacious; there's no descriptive tone painting going on. Nyman further distances the listener from the content of the poems by having a single vocalist, in this case, the extraordinary Angel, sing the parts of both the man and the woman. That decision defuses the erotic energy that could have come from using a pair of singers in a naturalistic way. The result is one of Nyman's most dynamic and engaging scores for voice. He gives full rein to his minimalist tendencies, but he's not a slave to repetition, and there's genuine development in the songs. His vocal writing is wrenchingly intense and deeply expressive. There's a sameness in the dense, driving accompaniment (by the Michael Nyman Ensemble) that may be wearing to the listener who doesn't give the songs enough focused attention to discern the variety that's here, but, as is the case with the best minimalist-inspired music, close listening can reveal depth and subtlety. Angel's voice is like a force of nature: primal, penetrating, sometimes a little frightening in its power, and gorgeously free. Fortunate are the contemporary composers for whom she has been an advocate, and to whom she has dedicated her considerable gifts.
Nyman wrote his song cycle, Acts of Beauty, for the Italian singer Cristina Zavalloni. Zavalloni, whose background is in jazz, but who branched out into new music and early music, has an extraordinary instrument: earthy, smoky, and supple. The texts, from sources ancient and modern, have at least some tenuous connection with the idea of beauty, but little else in common. In his vocal writing, Nyman is off his game here; the blocky text setting doesn't give Zavalloni much of an opportunity to demonstrate the expressiveness at which she excels. The music for the accompanying instrumental ensemble is far more interesting than the vocal line, (except that the first movement, with its quirkily contrasting sections, remains something of an enigma). The other movements, though, sound like four beautifully shaped minimalist pieces for chamber ensemble, with an added part for voice, whose text has little to do with the musical mood or structure, and which had to be awkwardly squashed out of shape to accommodate itself to the accompaniment. Exit No Exit for bass clarinet and string quartet is far more successful. It's oddly proportioned, with 10 movements lasting from one to two minutes, and a penultimate 10-minute movement. The playful miniatures prove to be a good size for Nyman's whimsical ideas. The longer movement sounds like a string of brief contrasting movements played without pause, but some of its sections are gorgeously lyrical.
Six Celan Songs and The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi show the composer at his best at setting texts and at writing expansive bel canto melody. The highly dramatic Celan Songs, based on texts related to the Holocaust, are astonishing in their musical unpredictability and volatility, but every unexpected turn feels absolutely right and completely satisfying. They are also gorgeously lyrical. The set receives a spellbinding performance by riveting contralto Hilary Summers, whose impassioned singing demonstrates an exceptional dramatic sense. Summers' powerful voice, which Nyman keeps largely in the lowest register, where it has a chilling whiteness, can also thrillingly soar into the stratosphere. The single-movement The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi has a text by visual artist Mary Kelly. Nyman made his setting to accompany an exhibit of Kelly's work based on the war in Kosovo. It's a less striking piece than the Celan Songs, and the performance by soprano Sarah Leonard, while very fine, pales in comparison with Summers'. Her voice is expressive, but somewhat grainy, a quality that's accentuated in contrast to Summers' stark purity. On each of the discs, the sound tends to favor the instruments, as is often the case in Nyman's own recordings of his work, but it's obviously the balance the composer wants.