City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Michael Seal (assistant conductor)
Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos [UK premiere – CBSO/Edward Gardner with Samuel West]
Thursday, June 21, 2012 Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
It seemed only natural that the opening concert of the London 2012 Festival (a nationwide series of arts events designed to complement the Olympics) should have opened with a large-scale, all-encompassing work. Such was certainly the case at Symphony Hall, with the UK premiere (after its first hearing in Berlin last autumn, with a London performance scheduled for October) of Weltethos – an evening-length work for narrator, choruses, organ and large orchestra, subtitled ‘A Vision in Music’ and designed (whether consciously or otherwise) by Jonathan Harvey as a summation of the spiritual and ethical convictions that have long underpinned his thinking both as a composer and, more to the point, human being.
Ethics are fundamental to the point of this piece – Weltethos being the setting of a text by Hans Küng, theologian and president of the Global Ethic Foundation, the six movements focusing on one of the world’s major religious or philosophical teachings: respectively Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Each of these movements (roughly 12 to 15 minutes in duration) outlines a similar trajectory: an orchestral prelude is followed by a narration then by its choral paraphrase, a subsidiary then principal choral statement and finally a refrain for the youth and children’s choirs. So outwardly systematic a follow-through does not always avoid the pitfalls of repetition, yet it undoubtedly aids the more immediate comprehension of such nominally complex issues as well as some hardly less intricate music. The expressive range of the latter, moreover, is considerable in featuring some of Harvey’s most visceral alongside some of his most intimate and, toward the end, transcendent writing.
The performance itself was a tour de force of focus and commitment. In his informative and entertaining pre-concert talk, chorus master Simon Halsey pointed out that the various chorus-ensembles had spent six months rehearsing music conceived with professional singers in mind – which explained the frequently soloistic nature of the writing (up to 80 individual parts in some instances) and the difficulties (by no means insurmountable, as this performance confirmed) in projecting this over and against an orchestra which features some ten percussionists in a virtually continuous role extensive even by the standards of this composer. No doubt there were failings and approximations, but what came across most forcefully was the intensity of the choral response – abetted by a no-less-impressive input from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner (who, as was confirmed by his recent account of The Dream of Gerontius, is wholly at ease with large-scale choral works), along with a typically thoughtful and eloquent showing by Samuel West.
Assessing the intrinsic qualities of Weltethos is hardly possible on a first hearing. Certainly the text, whatever its literary merits, rarely if ever impeded the musical content as proved the case with Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream, while there was a satisfyingly cumulative sense in the whole piece’s unfolding towards an expansive yet far from grandiloquent close. Many will question the very possibility of creating so inclusive and ambitious a conception in the first place but, at a time when artistic works that aspire to the visionary tend towards the gratuitous or merely simplistic, the conviction of Harvey – in what regrettably seems certain to be his last such undertaking – is something for which all listeners should be grateful.
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)