Nyman: War Work – Eight Songs with Film

Reviewed on Tue 02 Feb, 2016

Setting texts by unknown poets (all but one of whom were killed in the conflict), War Work is, by far, Nyman’s most affecting work, deeply humane and profound.

Subtitled Eight Songs with Film, Michael Nyman’s darkly beautiful, emotionally searing song cycle War Work was premiered at London’s Barbican Hall in December 2015. Although the visual elements (taken from French, German and American First World War archives) are absent here, the piece – arranged in two groups of four songs separated by instrumental passages – remains a poetic and poignant experience. Setting texts by unknown poets (all but one of whom were killed in the conflict), it is, by far, Nyman’s most affecting work, deeply humane and profound. There are subtle borrowings – ‘autres airs’, Nyman calls them – from an eclectic array of composers ranging from Gibbons and John Bull to Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven (the heart-breaking What’s Left of the Soldier-man starkly contrasting battlefield horror with Beethoven’s ineffably sweet Violin Concerto). Hilary Summers’s rich contralto imbues the text with painful immediacy, Nyman’s music distinctively his own but noticeably gentler and more compassionate. Deeply moving and compelling.
–Michael Quinn