Michael Nyman : Double Concerto for Saxophone, Cello and Orchestra
DOUBLE CONCERTO FOR SAXOPHONE AND CELLO
Commissioned by Mazda Cars (UK) Ltd., for John Harle and Julian Lloyd Webber and the Philharmonia, this concerto was written in late 1996 and early 1997 and first performed at the Royal Festival Hall, London under James Judd on 8th March 1997.
Though the individuality of each of the solo instruments is respected, there is a sense in which a new combined single solo instrument is being created (at least for the first two thirds of the piece). Saxophone and cello constantly double each other in different octaves, play in each other's characteristic registers, exchange material, shadow and decorate each other. Harmonically, the Concerto toys with the duality of the open (almost folk-like) and the sensual, the cleanly diatonic and the more muddily chromatic. It is only at that point in the work where a bitonal 'sandwich' is taken apart that the two soloists briefly take on marginally separate identities.
The five connected sections of the Concerto are clearly defined but are sometimes broken up into subsections; some themes wander from section to section while others are 're-presented' as (from quite early on) they recapitulate themselves and recombine with each other. The first three sections are each introduced by the soloists playing in unison or octaves. Sometimes the border between one section and another is marked by a lyrical, four-square waltz (presented in standard Q&A fashion).
Section 1: in two parts, both over a pedal D. The cello drags itself out of, and decorates, the sustained soprano sax line. The roles are then reversed before the violin section presents jagged rhythmic figures in a faster tempo.
Section 2: led by the soloist with a decorated/diminutive version of what is subsequently discovered to be a slow c minor (fake) waltz. Like Section 1, the second part is faster as the saxophone recomposes the jagged violin figure.
Section 3: C major, rustic irregular quaver theme first with soloist, later orchestrally.
Section 4: slow, sustained music underpinned by a more 'evolved' harmonic language. Stretched chords, first decorated by alto sax, then cello (the reverse of Section 1). In a faster tempo the jagged violin figure from Section 1 is heard over a series of triads underpinned bitonally by an unrelated G-A-C chord. With a reminiscence on alto sax of the waltz diminution of Section 2 the soloists split apart - the alto plays in its lowest register with the upper part of the harmonic sandwich, while the cello plays in its highest register a sustained melody with the lower part of the sandwich. A B-minor-ish sequence presents the only genuine solo, for cello, in the whole Concerto.
Section 5: amongst other things, returns to the tempo and some of the material of the opening three sections and ends with a combination platter now featuring (for both doubling soloists) a more elaborate version of the high sustained cello tune of Section 4.
© Michael Nyman
To be noted…was the composer’s choice of the practice of “shadowing” between John Harle on saxophones and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber… To Nyman, this was suggested by analogy with the famous shadow of a burnt-up human preserved in the relics of Hiroshima…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… What counted was the pay-off, a sense of catharsis found uniquely in Nyman’s art.
“Royal Festival Hall, London, March 1997”
Nicholas Williams, The Independent, 01/03/1997