This Saturday afternoon concert by the Smith Quartet – the first in a two-concert series that would present the complete string quartets of Michael Nyman, including the UK première of his String Quartet no. 5 (2011) – offered the opportunity to consider questions of rearrangement and representation in contemporary classical music, with both pieces in the programme based on existing music from other genres: String Quartet no. 4 (1995) draws on Nyman’s own Yamamoto Perpetuo (1993) for solo violin, and In Re Don Giovanni (1977/1991) is a deconstruction of Leporello’s “catalogue aria” from Don Giovanni. Whenever a composer draws on existing material, he owes the listener more than a mere recapitulation of what’s already been achieved; the result should offer a fresh perspective, whether by revealing some untapped potential in the music or by adding something new. With these works, Nyman takes two very different approaches to setting his source materials for string quartet, and the result in both cases was a reinterpretation that left me wondering whether it needed to be heard – or stated.

Michael Nyman © Francesco Guidicine
Michael Nyman
© Francesco Guidicine

In String Quartet no. 4, rather than arranging the component parts of his Yamamoto Perpetuo for four instruments, Nyman basically transplants his solo violin writing into the first violin part of the quartet, a compositional choice that severely limits the textual and textural possibilities of what he can do with the other instruments. In many of the twelve movements, the other instruments play a subordinate role to the first violin, doubling its part at the octave or providing repeated eighth-note accompaniment to create a homophonic texture that will set off its melody. There are a few interesting musical moments, as when the accompaniment turns to pizzicato arpeggiated chords, evoking the strumming of a folk guitar: the second violinist even holds his instrument as a guitar in these sections. This style is an appropriate choice considering that several movements include quotations from Scottish popular tunes, but all it demonstrates is that Scottish folk music sounds good when set in a folk style, even when performed on classical instruments. Why bother arranging for string quartet in the first place, instead of setting directly for folk instruments? Nyman confesses in his programme note that he regularly puts himself through “bizarre compositional hoops”, and indeed, this quartet is a composer’s conceit: it may be an interesting intellectual challenge for the composer, but it doesn’t give the audience a reason to listen to it.

Nyman approaches Leporello’s “catalogue aria” from an entirely different angle, taking the first sixteen bars of the number, separating the music into four textural layers – continuous quaver pulse, bass line, violin line, and vocal line – and presenting these layers in a cumulative fashion. But even this version is a rearrangement of a representation: In Re Don Giovanni was originally written for the Campiello Band (later the Michael Nyman Band) and rearranged for string quartet for the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The energetic pace and non-stop quavers evoke the light-hearted spirit of the original aria, and the cumulative form goes some way toward capturing Don Giovanni’s growing list of “accomplishments” and the cyclical nature of his romantic conquests – but frankly, the source material is so good, it hardly would’ve mattered what Nyman did with it.

The Smith Quartet did a valiant job with the material, even if the performance space at St John’s Smith Square didn’t do them any favours. The audience was seated as close as possible to the performers, with the group performing in the round, but the venue was simply too big for the ensemble – particularly in String Quartet no. 4, with its many quieter moments and its use of harmonics in the seventh and tenth movements. The intimate seating also threw off the balance: with the first violin and the cello practically right in front of you, the mids of the second violin and viola sounded distant and often got lost in the cavernous hall. Of course, this raises the question of whether they needed to be heard – whether any of this music needed to be heard, or even stated. Certainly Nyman reinterprets his source materials in these two works, but mostly he brings out what was already inherent in the music, rather than offering any original statement that could only have been made through the voice of a string quartet. For the Smith Quartet, an ensemble so widely touted for being at the cutting edge of new music, this material seemed curiously old.