CLASSICAL MUSIC: Michael Nyman Double Concerto premiere RFH, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
Interviewed by Ned Sherrin on Saturday's Loose Ends, Michael Nyman described his imminent date with the Philharmonia that evening as a transport concert. "Transports of delight?" was our host's rejoinder, not among his more sparkling flights of free association, but one that held a grain of truth. Yes, Nyman's TGV-inspired Musique a Grande Vitesse was played at the Festival Hall, in a Mazda-sponsored evening that also featured a premiere they had commissioned. And yes, watching the audience at a Nyman event such as this one was a lesson in the unique power of his music to carry people off on brief yet potent excursions into ecstasy.

Granted that, on the former point, the delight was not universal. Between the composer and his sponsor it seems there had been different views as to whether or not the new piece was about kansei. This is yet another oriental term for that famous phrase, the harmony of opposites and, by chance, a Mazda slogan. As music above all should be about music, this need not concern us unduly. To be noted, however, was the composer's choice of the practice of "shadowing" between John Harle on saxophones and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber in this new Double Concerto. To Nyman, this was suggested by analogy with the famous shadow of a burnt-up human form preserved in the relics of Hiroshima; rather a grim provenance, one might feel, to justify the use of a pretty standard technique of 20th-century music.

In fact, a no less striking pairing of instruments was that of cello with the glitter of marimba and vibraphone, splashes of colour like bright blooms in a piece that was settled in darker hues. As befits a work initiated by our most ardent advocate of the British cello repertoire, the concerto gave much of its substance to Lloyd Webber, who built bridges to Harle through the near identity of tone shared by their instruments in certain registers. In the matrix of this relation were bred violent unisons for the soloists, while arching phrases for saxophones above the cello's frenetic activity recalled the style of the Michael Nyman band. Stridently amplified, the content of the piece resided less in its themes than in its boundless energy. Jagged tunes and a "mystery" waltz rubbed shoulders in a process of evolution that was not in itself profound. What counted was the pay off; a sense of catharsis found uniquely in Nyman's art. That's what the audience wanted. And with Harle and Lloyd Webber tested yet surviving, at the end they got it, plus or minus the subjective kansei.

Before the interval, MGV gave much the same delivery, right on time with the Philharmonia joined by the Michael Nyman Band and the composer at the piano. Loud, loud, loud, and quite a lot of fun, it followed Schulhoff's Third Symphony, a not quite symphonic score of the 1930s that was full of fine detail. The conductor, James Judd, gave a commanding performance, as he did in Nyman's two works and the folk-based Sensemaya of Silvestre Revueltas. Not many people know the output of this composer, Le sacre via Mexico to judge from this account. It's to Nyman's credit that, devising the programme, he added such unusual repertoire. He is, after all, a most intriguing musician.