NYMAN: Piano Concerto / Where the Bee Dances (John Lenehan/ Simon Haram/ Takuo Yuasa/ Tim Handley/ Ulster Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554168)
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Michael Nyman (b.
The Piano Concerto;Where the Bee Dances
When Michael Nyman published his study Experimental Music: John Cageand Beyond (1974), he could hardly have foreseen his own contribution tothat "beyond". Rejecting the orthodoxies of British modernism, Nymanhad abandoned composition in 1964, working instead as a musicologist, editingPurcell and Handel, and collecting folk-music in Romania. Later he became amusic critic, in which capacity he was the first to apply the word "minimalism"to music, in a 1968 review for The Spectator of Cornelius Cardew's TheGreat Digest.
That same year, a chance encounter with a BBC broadcast of Steve Reich'sCome Out opened Nyman's ears to further possibilities. A route back tocomposition was emerging. He wrote the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle's 1969"dramatic pastoral" Down by the Greenwood Side. In 1977,Birtwistle, by now Musical Director of the National Theatre, commissioned himto provide arrangements of eighteenth-century Venetian songs for the productionof Carlo Goldoni's play Il Campiello, to be performed by what Nymandescribes as "the loudest street band" he could imagine: rebecs,sackbuts, shawms alongside banjo, bass drum and saxophone.
Thrilled by the results, Nyman kept the Campiello Band together, nowpropelled by his own piano playing, but a band needs repertoire, which Nymanset about providing, beginning with In Re Don Giovanni, a characteristictreatment of a sixteen-bar sequence by Mozart. Soon the band's line-up mutated,amplification was added, and the name changed to the Michael Nyman Band. Thishas been the laboratory in which Nyman has formulated his aesthetic, itssound-world shaping a compositional style built around strong melodies,flexible, assertive rhythms and precisely articulated ensemble playing.
Besides concert-hall works, Nyman has written dozens of film-scores fordirectors as diverse as Peter Greenaway, Jane Campion and Volker Schlondorff;and pieces to accompany dance, a cat-walk fashion show (Yamamoto Perpetuo forJapanese designer Yohji Yamamoto), the opening of a high-speed rail link (MGV,1993) and a computer game (Enemy Zero). That acute sensitivity tooccasion and context is enriched by a talent, shared with baroque composers,for refiguration: the 1995 Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings developsideas previously encountered in The Convertibility of Lute Strings and Tangofor Tim; the Third String Quartet lies behind the score forChristopher Hampton's 1996 movie Carrington. At every turn Nyman hasproved eminently practical. Not for him the ivory tower anguish of a tormentedcomposer grappling with abstract systems, rather an openness to collaboration,a spry sense of humour, a highly literate imagination and an instant,instinctive ability to engage a highly diverse audience.
Michael Nyman's saxophone concerto Where the Bee Dances waswritten for John Harle, a performer who has had a continuing association withthe Michael Nyman Band. The title of the work makes obvious reference toShakespeare's song for Ariel, in The Tempest, Where the bee sueks, therelurk Il In a cowslip's bell I lie, set by Nyman for Peter Greenaway's film Prospero'sBooks. References to this setting return from time to time during thecourse of the concerto. The title has a further reference to the circular danceof bees as they seek to show the source of nectar. The other musical basis ofthe work is a series of four chords. The concerto was expressly designed tomake use of the abilities of John Harle, a composer and performer who has had asignificant connection with the performance of contemporary music by composersranging from Richard Rodney Bennett to David Bedford, Harrison Birtwistle andMichael Torke.
The Piano Concerto is derived from the score for the film The Piano, whichprovided solo piano music for Ada, the leading character in Jane Campion'sfilm, with its story of tragic marital tensions in a remote New Zealand settingin the nineteenth century. The Scottish widow Ada, with her child, goes out tomarry a settler, bringing her piano. The instrument cannot be taken to theirhouse and is, instead, kept in the house of a neighbour, from whom Ada buys itback by allowing sexual favours, finally to fall in love. The film ends withher departure, with the piano now seemingly lost in the waves. The piano musicfor the film was written in 1991 and the orchestral score derived from it inthe following year. The resulting work, The Piano Concerto, which refersdirectly to the title of the moving film in its own title, was written for theLille Festival in 1993, and develops the necessarily shorter fragments demandedin a film score into a coherent whole. The work is in one movement and makesuse of four distinct elements. These include Ada's Scottish song Bonny winter'snoo awa' and, in a third and fourth episode Flowers of the Forest andBonnie Jean, after a second chromatic element. The four episodes havethe titles The Beach, The Woods, The Hut and The Release.