BBCSO Invitation Concert – 10th October

photo copyright ©1996 Jane Shircliff

Composer Portrait – Jonathan Harvey

Tranquil Abiding [London première]†
White as Jasmine [UK première]†§
The Riot
Timepieces [UK première]†‡

Het Trio (Harrie Starreveld, flute/piccolo; Harry Sparnaay, bass clarinet; René Eckhardt, piano)
Anu Komsi (soprano)§
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre-André Valade† and Matthew Rowe‡

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 October, 2001
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London

While Masterprize, with the full backing of the BBC and BBC Music Magazine, was taking place at the Barbican on the same night, the BBC Symphony Orchestra – the single full-size orchestra that has done most for contemporary music in this country – gave another concert in its ongoing ’Composer Portrait’ series.

Extraordinarily it was the first concert in this country to be devoted solely to the music of Jonathan Harvey. With five winning masterpieces, I get the impression that the cause of contemporary music was better served at Maida Vale than the Barbican, and I suggest that any of Harvey’s orchestral pieces (all falling within the time limits set by Masterprize) would have swept the board had they been heard in competition.

The slowly-unfolding Tranquil Abiding (1998), inspired by Harvey’s love of all-things Buddhist, is sumptuous, yet delicate, and relaxing – a 14-minute piece for small orchestra that ebbed and flowed before dying away with the a-rhythmic sound of wooden wind chimes struck not only by the percussionists but also horn and trumpet players.

The Het Trio from Holland offered interludes, the first for just flautist (doubling piccolo) and pianist in an evocation of the four-armed dancer Shiva – Nataraja – with energetic dancing outer sections, framing a more reticent and subdued centre. There was much here for lovers of Messiaen’s birdsong. Joined by bass-clarinettist Harry Sparnaay, the complete Het Trio played The Riot, which had been commissioned for the ensemble by Bristol University Music Department in 1994. The brief programme-note explained the complexity of Harvey’s inspiration (each theme having “a distinctive harmonic field characterised by about two intervals”), but one doesn’t necessarily need to understand the compositional techniques to appreciate the work in which, as Harvey also described, “virtuoso exhilaration is predominant – the game is to throw around themes that retain their identity sufficiently to bounce off each other sharply.”

The grittiest work on offer was the latest, a short song-cycle, White as Jasmine, from 1999, sung by its original interpreter, the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi. Based on the 12th-century poetry of the Indian saint, Mahadevi, and her mentor, Allama Prabhu, (sung in A K Ramanujan’s English translations), Harvey has chosen six texts to set to music (four by Mahadevi, two by Prabhu), which describe in elliptical terms not only the geographical journey Mahadevi made, but also the spiritual one. The non-linear texts coupled with Harvey’s rarefied soundworld add another level, which for me was not as totally successful as the instrumental works.

Finally, Timepieces, written fourteen years ago but here – astonishingly – receiving its UK première. Three different movements, investigating the time-worlds we inhabit. The possibilities are endless, but Harvey skilfully contains himself to just three scenarios utilising two conductors (Matthew Rowe – from behind – looks like ’Jamie’ from “Eastenders”!), with the players not necessarily following the same conductor throughout each piece. This is not only supremely clever writing, but also wonderfully engaging for the viewer and listener; the eerie sounds of a clothes brush gently stroked across the piano strings, with drum-brushes used on the cymbals by most of the percussionists, that opens the final, slow, “almost timeless” movement was just one of the arresting moments. Even the non-scored addition of an audience member’s digital-watch-chime seemed, for once, appropriate! This was without doubt one of the most important and memorable premières in Britain this year.

It struck me that one could easily have a time-themed programme for a future BBC Symphony Orchestra Barbican concert, concentrating on recent British works. Start with Anthony Payne’s Time’s Arrow, continue with Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks (for solo piano); let the second half open with Harvey’s Timepieces, and there should be two commissions to close: Mark-Anthony Turnage should be asked for a piece called Time, Gentleman, Please; Judith Weir could bring some equality with Time, Ladies, Please. Any takers?

One final point. This programme could easily be accommodated on a single CD. How about BBC Music Magazine making a concerted, regular commitment to contemporary music and start with this Harvey programme? This would get the message out clearer than ever before about the abiding fascination we should all feel in the music of our time, and breakdown so many barriers.

  • This concert was recorded for broadcast on Saturday, 10 November, BBC Radio 3 at 10.00pm in ’Hear and Now’

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