Review: Very Best of Michael Nyman - Film Music 1980 - 2001, The
3.5 / 5 Stars
To call a compilation "The Very Best" of a composer is difficult to get away with. Undoubtedly, there will be many a track from a musician's oeuvre that fans will miss on a compilation, and several that they will find unremarkable. Such is the case with "The Very Best of Michael Nyman" for me, a devoted fan of Mr. Nyman's work. Let me begin by saying that this is not a bad compilation - it is simply lacking in certain areas. Beginning with disc one, Virgin elected to go with live recordings of "Bird List Song" and "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds," from The Draughtsman's Contract. The latter track is a favorite of mine, but where is "The Garden Is Becoming a Robe Room," from the film of the same title? Also, the Essential Michael Nyman Band album features superior re-recordings of nearly every Greenaway piece represented on this disc.
"Homage a Maurice" didn't impress me much, and while I love "Time Lapse," I was never much engaged by "Angelfish Decay." Thus, the A Zed and Two Noughts contribution is sort of take it or leave it for me. Bringing us to Drowning By Numbers, my favorite Nyman/Greenaway collaboration. The pieces here are a strong representation of the score, but again, the "Essential MNB" comes out on top, with extended and faster versions of "Wheelbarrow Walk" and the climactic "Knowing the Ropes." Still, these are great fun, and worth having in any form.
"Memorial" - whose genesis lies far outside The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and whose presence therein was always a touchy subject for the composer - is relentlessly depressing, piling on sadness like it was butter on popcorn. It builds and builds and builds, relentlessly over the same Purcell-ian ground, until - with the entrance of soprano Sarah Leonard - the piece practically cries out in an anguished ensemble passage. Here is a case where the original recording is superior to the "Essential MNB" rendition; it has a more raw energy to it, and is overall more percussive-sounding.
Next up are several cues from the rare score, The Hairdresser's Husband, a score that doesn't do much for me at all. Still, there are four cues here, of which "Skating" is the best to my ears. I don't know where the "Miranda Previsited" recording comes from, but it is an unerringly slow rendition of the wonderful "Miranda" theme from Prospero's Books. This is a version of the theme that I could live without (again, the "Essential MNB" is the winner here, even over the original soundtrack).
Next up is what many consider the essential Nyman score, The Piano. Like many, this was my initiation into his work, and it's lost nothing for me over the years. The cues here are a fine representation of the score, particularly "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" and "All Imperfect Things," which enhanced that film to such a great degree. And so, Disc 1 ends very, very well.
Disc 2 is that confounding mix of "ok" cues and amazing ones, thus making it a mixed blessing. Of all the wonderful music in Six Days, Six Nights, I can't for the life of me figure out why "Escape" was the cue chosen to represent it here. If you can find that album, by all means, buy it - "A la Folie" is one of my favorite Nyman pieces, and that score deserves better (and more) representation than it receives here. I was also a bit let down by the tracks from Carrington. They're not bad - "Fly Drive" is pretty fun - but the most haunting theme from the film - that derived from Nyman's third String Quartet - is absent, making it unsatisfying for anyone with knowledge of that score.
The Diary of Anne Frank follows, and is represented by two cues. "Abel Carries Epharim" is good enough, but the song "If" is one of Nyman's most moving and hauntingly beautiful compositions, and worth getting this disc for if you couldn't find the Japanese CD of this score. As performed by Sarah Leonard, the song is essential for Nyman fans, and might win over a few converts, if they were ever to hear it. Another of Nyman's more popular successes is Gattaca, given a healthy chunk of time on this album. The edit of "Becoming Jerome" and "God's Hands" is a welcome extension of the former cue. The rest is very solemn music, and some of the most mature that Nyman has written to date. Sure, it's beautiful music, but if you haven't seen it married to the film, you cannot begin to fully understand it's impact. Typically associated with his raucous, often loud Greenaway scores, Nyman shows here that he can be a master of understatement, particularly in "The Departure." Again, though, I've got one gripe - the lovely "Irene's Theme" is nowhere to be heard on this disc.
Nyman himself has said that some of his best music was written for a film that did not engage him much at all, and whose score was ultimately rejected. That film, Practical Magic, is represented here in "Convening the Coven" (one of the two Nyman cues available on the first pressing of the film's soundtrack). This is the highlight of Disc 2, and one of the most rousing pieces Nyman has ever penned. Using forces quite unlike his typical Michael Nyman Band set-up - including orchestra, percussion, women's choir, saxes, and electric guitar and bass - the piece is a steadily and rapidly building variation on a delightful little theme that ought to win over whatever stalwarts were able to withstand "If." It's just altogether charming, and will give the repeat button a work-out.
Ravenous, for me, was a thoroughly interesting score, but mainly for Damon Albarn's contributions. Since this is Nyman's album, it's Nyman cues we hear, and they are, sadly, inferior to Albarn's bizarre take on the American frontier. Wonderland is another of Nyman's gloriously understated scores - richly thematic, but rarely rising to the foreground of a rather small film. It features one of my favorite Nyman themes - heard first in "Molly" - and is a welcome addition to any compilation. The End of the Affair had a fine score, but it's finest moments are not represented here. The title track is pretty and all, but the themes heard in the "Diary of Hate" and "Jealous of the Rain" are far more compelling, thus making this selection a bit disappointing.
Now we come to what is probably my favorite Nyman score, The Claim. That said, I was dissatisfied with its representation here. "The Burning" is a brilliant cue, with a cumulative effect that consistently impresses me, but "The Shootout" is the weakest cue from the whole score, and could have been replaced by a handful of better pieces here. Also, the main theme - as heard in "The Exchange," "The Explanation," and "The Fiery Deaths," most notably - is conspicuously absent. Seeing as it's one of Nyman's finest compositions, this is a sad loss indeed.
The long and the short of it is this - yes, it's a fine compilation, in spite of my many little gripes. Still, if I were to suggest two essential Nyman albums, these discs would not be at the top of the list. Rather, those two albums would be "The Essential Michael Nyman Band" (on the Argo label, which has folded - though copies can still be found) and The Claim. Both of these are, to me, better representations of Nyman at his best, both as the raucous composer of the Greenaway days, and as a dramatist with a gift for subtlety.
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