All Imperfect Things: solo piano music of Michael Nyman

Sally Whitwell, piano
Classical, Film Music, New Music
ABC Classics 481 0412
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2014

I must admit that I was interested in reviewing this disc because of Michael Nyman’s sound-track for Jane Campion’s art film The Piano, where an otherwise fascinating creative piece was spoilt, at least for me, by this composer’s music. In other words, I wanted to discover whether other music by Nyman would prove to be more varied and interesting than what I had already heard.

The first thing to say about this music is that it represents a particular kind of minimalism where the chief influence seems to be Philip Glass, whose work I dislike intensely. This is a personal viewpoint, I know, but to be enthusiastic about music which utilises such limited material is well nigh impossible. Frequently there is repetitive pattern-making, largely unadventurous harmonies and uninteresting melodic shapes. Yes, there is the occasional syncopation making for rhythmic variety, here and there a certain lyrical nostalgia, and some abrupt endings to pieces which might be viewed as dramatic moments; but overall the effect remains a severely restricted mish-mash of trite, unoriginal ideas. In short, I find some of the tracks positively embarrassing, for example Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, from Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtman’s Contract, where a pounding left-hand underpins a single-note melodic line which is occasionally expanded to a chordal texture: the music is conveniently formulaic.

Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell

To my ears, the most successful tracks are the leisurely and wistful Lost and Found from The Piano, and The Embrace from the same film, wherein a winding left-hand melody is balanced by right-hand chord-clusters. The title track All Imperfect Things is cast in a simple ABA form, the ominous-sounding outer sections framing a disappointing central one. A few tracks show unmistakable influences: for instance, the intriguingly-named The Attraction of the Pedalling Ankle from The Piano is partly Debussyan in atmosphere (that composer’s Reverie), while Chopin invades the same piece with a deliberate quote from his B-flat Mazurka. If  from The Diary of Anne Frank recalls Chopin’s elegiac fourth Prelude in E minor, and The Schoolroom from the same film has touches of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhagen. Perhaps the grim nature of Enemy Zero was responsible for the harmonically-more-imaginative Digital Tragedy.

In Sally Whitwell’s informative, detailed program notes, she expresses obvious affection and respect for Nyman’s musical language and style. While acknowledging her opinions, I cannot agree concerning works which I find ultimately tedious and unimaginative. This comes down to a difference in taste, and I can envisage that Nyman’s music would appeal to a considerable cross-section of listeners. For me, however, it illustrates an easy ‘way out’ of having to face the various difficult realities of contemporary composition. Having said all that, I note that the disc is capably performed and unusually packaged, with two photos of the pianist Gothically dressed all in black and sporting a built-up, partly-tinted hair style. A ‘different’ type of CD.

LISTEN: http://sillywhatwell.weebly.com/recordings.html

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