MICHAEL NYMAN Acts of Beauty - Exit no Exit

Michael Nyman wrote his song cycle Acts of Beauty for Italian singer Cristina Zavalloni. Zavalloni, whose background is in jazz, but who branched into new music and early music, has an extraordinary instrument: powerfully primal, 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. Nyman, who frequently shows a real gift for lyrical vocal writing, is off his game here; the blocky text-setting doesn't give Zavalloni much 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 is oddly proportioned, with 10 movements lasting from one to two minutes, with 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. The sound is clean and present, but weighted a little strongly toward the instruments.

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