INKPOT#86 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: NYMAN Where the Bee Dances. The Piano Concerto. Lenechan/Haram. Ulster Orchestra/Yuasa (Naxos)
The Piano Concerto
Concerto for Saxophone & Orchestra “Where the Bee Dances”
John Lenehan piano
Simon Haram saxophone
Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa
Nyman’s Saxophone Concerto was written for none other than John Harle, perhaps the most famous saxophonist of the “classical music world”, who has in any case always been associated with the composer’s music and its performance. The title, Where the Bee Dances, is a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, specifically to Ariel’s song “Where the bee sucks”. This in turn is a reference to Nyman’s music for the ingenius masterpiece of a film, Prospero’s Books, directed by Peter Greenaway.
According to the notes, the then 24-year-old Michael Nyman was the “first to apply the word ‘minimalism’ to music”, in a 1968 review for The Spectator. Painters will say that this music is hardly minimalist, as the word would ideally define. True minimalism is very stark indeed, where elements both rhythmic and resource are reduced to an absolutely minimum.According to the Oxford Music Dictionary, “Minimalism” is the “term applied to style of music which began in 1960s involving repetition of short musical motifs in a simple harmonic idiom. The minimum of material is repeated to maximum hypnotic effect…”
As the title suggests, and as Nyman’s music goes, this is a propellor of a piece, constantly in motion, melodic yet not exactly melodic, but always in motion, light-hearted yet intent. The 16-minute work doesn’t let up, but has more than enough variety to sustain interest. Simon Haram’s solo is adept and unindulgent, which is all you need for Nyman sometimes.
The performance of The Piano Concerto, based on Jane Campion’s film The Piano (Holly Hunter, et al), is likewise effective and committed. Pianist John Lenehan gets a good grip of the peltering passages of pianowork, sustaining the momentum with the Ulster Orchestra with admirable cooperation. The performance has less passion and kick than the classic recording with Kathryn Stott on Decca (reviewed here), but I actually think this is not a weakness – I can’t exactly decide whether a more emotionally involved performance helps this performance. Or perhaps a more detached one would bring out more of the Nyman-ness than the context of the film.
Lenehan’s rendition of the second movement, The Hut, is sensuous but light – quite effective. His way with The Release is less elastic than Stott’s, but equally exciting – Lenehan prefers a more mechanised feel, whereas Stott likes to bounce the rhythm. Both are effective – in the way that… well, I get this feeling almost as if the music plays itself. The Piano Concerto has a rollickingly satisfying finale aptly titled The Release which both pianists do not fail to relish.
Perhaps the thing about this kind of “minimalist” music is that, once you get the hang of the notes, technical worries disappear from the mind of the performer. The notes flow without hinderance, and what is left for the musician to do… is to really enjoy the jubilantly “mindless” act of churning out passage after passage of similar note sequences – perhaps this is the key?
But as I’ve said, this music is not really minimalist all the time – the main theme from the film makes a climatic appearance at the end. Here Lenehan and the Ulster Orchestra make good the poignant music with its solemn-heroic atmosphere. Fans of the film’s music need not hesitate. If full-price is not for you, here’s your chance.
600: 10.9.1999 Chia Han-Leon