Feature Review – Total Immersion: Jonathan Harvey [BBC Symphony Orchestra, 28 January 2012]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Jonathan Harvey


Tombeau de Messiaen

Tranquil Abiding

Songs of Li Po

Calling Across Time

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano)

James Kreiling (piano)

Guildhall Chamber Orchestra

Richard Baker

Guildhall Electronic Music Studios (sound projection)



Forms of Emptiness

Come, Holy Ghost

The Royal Banners Forward Go

The Angels

I Love the Lord

How could the soul not take flight

BBC Singers

David Hill (with Matthew Hamilton and Tim Murray)


Body Mandala


Madonna of Winter and Spring

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Sound Intermedia (David Sheppard, Ian Dearden & Jonathan Green – live electronics)

Martyn Brabbins

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Barbican Hall & St Giles Cripplegate, London

Perhaps most surprising about this BBC Symphony Orchestra “Total Immersion” event devoted to the music of Jonathan Harvey was why such a retrospective had not happened earlier. Certainly Englishman Harvey (born 1939) has been as prolific as almost any composer of his generation this past decade: consistent in quality too, as these concerts underlined by focussing largely on recent works, with a handful from earlier in his career to recall his notable contribution to the interplay of instruments and electronics, as well as that visionary outlook which – while following in a lineage of English creative figures as far back as the Middle Ages – remains nothing if not relevant to the outlook of his own time.

That said, the visionary was approached obliquely in the lunchtime recital with which the performance aspect got underway. Hence the teasing elegance of Vers (2000), his 75th-birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez, then the increasingly ecstatic abandon with which Tombeau de Messiaen (1994) fuses the sounds of pre-recorded and live piano in a wholly apposite memorial. Both were given with deft assurance by James Kreiling, before the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra provided eloquent accounts of Tranquil Abiding (1998) – one of Harvey’s most immediately appealing works in which the rhythm of ‘breathing’ central to so much of his more recent output is given lucid expression – and Calling Across Time (1998), in which a synthesizer is added to the still-modest forces and where the antiphonal potential of call-and-response is utilised intensively. Richard Baker was the attentive conductor here and in Songs of Li Po (2002), a short though strongly contrasted cycle in which vocal lines alternately wondrous, questioning and contemplative were finely rendered by Marta Fontanals-Simmons.

An early evening concert by the BBC Singers and the ever-reliable David Hill at St Giles (good that this most evocative of churches is still a regular venue for BBC activities) brought together seven of Harvey’s choral works – a medium in which his achievement is second-to-none among living composers. Marahi (1999) is a “hymn of adoration to the divine feminine” in which Marian hymns (in Latin) and Buddhist prayers (in Sanskrit) are superimposed in music of cumulative tension and heightened release: the result is expressively diverse yet formally cohesive – more so, indeed, than Forms of Emptiness (1986), where Buddhist, Sanskrit and Anglican religious texts are superimposed in a musical process whose intricacy (the choir requiring three conductors) verges on the diffuse. Not so Come, Holy Ghost (1984) – in which elements of plainchant are combined with those of homophony, polyphony and heterophony in this arresting setting of an age-old text – or The Royal Banners Forward Go (2003) which, along with The Angels (1994), are anthems written for the Cambridge colleges of St John’s and King’s respectively, and breathe new life into a genre which can all too easily seem staid (is there even a distant echo of Stanford’s The Bluebird in the latter?). Written for Winchester Cathedral, I Love the Lord (1976) remains the best known of all Harvey’s works – a setting whose raptness is made more fervent by solo voices whose tonal directness gradually draws the main choir into its ecstatic orbit. Different again is How could the soul not take flight (1996) – a near compendium of Harvey’s vocal concerns, and with a panache whose journey from dense equivocation to piercing clarity is accomplished with scintillating poise.

The evening concert comprised three of Harvey’s most ambitious large-scale pieces from over two decades: three works, moreover, whose inherent contrasts make them ideal components for such an undertaking. So in Body Mandala (2006), Harvey has created one of his most visceral and directly involving statements – issues of the unknowable and the purified central to music whose monumental opening imagery (what might in other contexts be referred to as ‘post-Minimalist’) gradually opens out into music of almost improvisatory freedom which yet finds its way back to the beginning – or at least a sufficient implication of it – to enforce coherence.

Somewhere at the opposite pole (though the composer might reasonably object to such an arbitrary division) of Harvey’s creative thought is Messages (2007), whose text is the names of angels from Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Judaist scripture – these separated into sequences represented the seven heavens which yet merge imperceptibly one into the other as the music passes from its initial stasis, through passages of greater activity and latterly intensive drama, to final repose. The orchestra – which excludes violins but features a distinctive array of keyboards and tuned percussion, sometimes almost as an intermediary between chorus (here the BBC Symphony Chorus in fine form) and other instruments – is deployed with notable care for its relationship vis-à-vis the voices, while the musical expression ranges from a forbidding complexity to a disarming simplicity: nowhere more than in the final minutes whose slow dissolution of words, then sound, is undeniably mesmeric.

The second half brought a welcome revival of Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986), the substantial work for orchestra, synthesizers and electronics that, back at the time of its premiere at the Proms, seems to have been judged a worthy failure but whose failings can now be heard within the context of what Harvey has since gone on to achieve. Certainly the four sections – the aggressive fragmentation of ‘Conflict’, then the curving downward spiral of ‘Descent’, the frozen stasis of ‘Depths’ and fluid burgeoning of ‘Mary’ – are almost too contrasted to comprise a logically or cumulatively unfolding sequence (such that a degree of superimposition, or at least recollection, might have been beneficial), while aspects of the electronics inevitably sound of their time. All credit, therefore, to Martyn Brabbins, abetted by a committed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for steering so focussed and compelling a course through the near 40-minutes – bringing out many of the motivic connections that help pull these diverse sections together, and with even a hint of earlier ideas being reprised as the final section heads to its ethereal closing minutes – during which, it might be noted, the audience was as silent and concentrated as could be wished: proof that the aims of Harvey’s music were fulfilled.

Regrettably, serious illness meant the composer was unable to attend any of the events, for which their direct ‘streaming’ to his home in Sussex was hopefully some compensation. A measure of his music’s impact could be gauged when, towards the end of the choral recital, David Hill invited the audience to show its appreciation with an additional round of applause. Harvey can only have been gratified by the response.

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