Jonathan Harvey: Piano Trio

0 of 5 stars

Jonathan Harvey
Piano Trio (1971)
Advaya, for cello, electronic keyboard and electronics (1994)
Dialogue and Song, for cello and piano (1967/77)
Vers, for solo piano (2000)
Tombeau de Messiaen, for piano and tape (1994)
Flight-Elegy, for violin and piano (1989)

Trio Fibonacci
Julie-Anne Derome, violin;
Gabriel Prynn, cello;
Andre Ristic, piano

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: November 2001

The music of Jonathan Harvey (born 1939 in Sutton Coldfield) is by now reasonably well represented on disc. However, this new release on the Canadian label, Atma, plugs a number of gaps in featuring chamber works and some early pieces. Trio Fibonacci are a Montreal-based ensemble keen to extend their repertory by reconfiguring into solos and duos and by championing new music (they recently premiered a piece by Michael Finnissy in Oxford). Here they present a stimulating cross-section of Harvey’s chamber output ranging from his student days in 1967 to a Boulez 75th-birthday tribute composed last year.

The only actual trio on the disc is the Piano Trio dating from 1971. Although one of the very first works in Harvey’s oeuvre, its three movements are remarkably assured and in some ways already characteristic of their composer. The brief opening ‘Song’ is a good example of Harvey’s ability to create an instantly expressive musical image, where an ardent melody on unison strings is suspended over rapid figuration in the treble of the piano. A hieratic element in the music speaks of the influence of Messiaen. The second movement, ‘System’, is more avowedly ‘avant-garde’ in its gestures but even here a characteristic lightness of touch distinguishes it from the more anonymous specimens of the lingua franca of the day. The closing ‘Rite’ clinches the work by developing the language of the second movement to a point of climax and, at its end, recalling the piano figuration of the first movement. A work well worth dusting off from the haunted east-wing of Harvey’s catalogue, especially as performed here with an almost frightening intensity.

Dialogue and Song pairs an even earlier work, from 1967, with a revisit of its terrain written ten years later. The former is as fascinating for its lack of Harvey thumbprints as the latter is for its distilled essence of the composer’s mature style. Two works for solo instrument and electronics constitute the most aurally spectacular items on the disc. Advaya for cello and cello-derived electronics is one of Harvey’s by-now numerous IRCAM projects. Described by the composer as a piece concerned with ‘cello-ness’, the interaction of the live and pre-recorded elements create a ‘hyper-cello’ whose material explores ways in which the transcendental might be represented in music. This entails spectral analysis of real notes and their internal substructures, with audible connotations of ‘body’ and ‘spirit’. The work centres on the pitch A 220 Hz and the diverse exploration of harmonics and pitchless timbres creates the impression that the whole work is being played-out inside a single note. An image of a consciousness operating on a number of levels is conveyed by the way in which the electronics and the soloist make use of the same material but played at drastically different speeds, a technique that perhaps has its foundations in early sacred polyphonic music. After a central plateau whose regular rhythms crosscut with unstable elements, strongly reminiscent of Boulez, the work culminates in a kind of ecstatic chorale, an extraordinary passage. The brilliant performance of Gabriel Prynn more than holds its own against that of Pierre Strauch on an Ensemble InterContemporain CD of Harvey’s music on the Ades label (206 942).

The other work in this category is Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and tape; the latter built from harmonic series, twelve, untempered. The fusion of the tape part with the well-tempered solo part creates a kind of giant microtonal piano.The luminous arpeggiated chords that burst across the surface of the music carry a strong resonance of Boulez’s Repons, while some of the more vertiginous passages sound like Nancarrow at his most manic. The work generates a fascinating range of harmonic colours and grips the attention throughout. Boulez is also the dedicatee of the other piano work, Vers, a highly effective miniature.

The final work, Flight-Elegy, is scored for violin and piano, although the piano part consists almost entirely of quasi-electronic low thuds and distant rustlings created on the strings of the instrument. The composer’s note describes the work’s rather extraordinary inspiration but the aural result would be striking even without knowledge of its programme. An utterly becalmed and forlorn violin melody floats high above the piano’s enigmatic soundscape. Coming at the end of the disc, it makes for a beautiful envoi.

The fiercely committed performances of Trio Fibonacci were recorded in the presence of the composer. It would be hard to imagine more authoritative or virtuosic accounts of these works; this release should do much to raise the profile of the group. The recording has a huge dynamic range, although the acoustic is somewhat boxy. Well worth seeking out.

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