Nyman: The Suit and the Photograph: Three Quartets; String Quartet No. 4

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WORKS: The Suit and the Photograph: Three Quartets; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Camilli Quartet, Michael Nyman Band
After various attempts at reconciling his rather limited but highly effective compositional language with the demands of large-scale form – with variable results, from the wonderfully successful MGV to the frankly hideous Trombone Concerto – Michael Nyman has taken rather a different approach in his Fourth String Quartet. It’s cast in 12 interrelated movements and lasts 40 minutes, so comparisons with the ‘form’ of a pop album are unavoidable – especially since the self-contained movements last around three minutes each. The work is built around a virtuoso work for solo violin, Yamamoto perpetuo, which Nyman composed in 1993 and which forms the first violin part of the quartet – and therein lies the problem. The Quartet’s relentless freneticism, dense textures and extreme and sudden contrasts of mood and dynamic within almost every movement grow wearing over 40 minutes, and the harsh sounds the Camilli Quartet produces (which, ironically, are exactly what the music seems to demand) make for difficult listening. Three Quartets, for quartets of strings, saxophones and brass, comes as something of a relief, if only because of the introduction of other instrumental timbres. It’s a likeable enough piece, unashamedly sectional but brimming over with catchy melody and invention. The initial idea of using each quartet as a separate unit is soon abandoned, and the instruments quickly take on their usual Nyman characteristics: scrubbing demisemiquavers on the strings (again), saxophones farting out a bass-line or wailing on top in a rasping fortissimo (John Harle really should be told – it’s not pleasant), brass with ‘noble’, slow-moving melodies or chorales. It’s refreshing to hear the Michael Nyman Band without the idiosyncratically pounding piano of Nyman himself, but essentially there’s nothing new here. David Kettle