Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos [CBSO/Edward Gardner with Samuel West; London premiere]

Jonathan Harvey
Weltethos – A Vision in Music to a text by Hans Küng [London premiere]

Samuel West (speaker)

CBSO Chorus
London Voices
CBSO Youth Chorus
CBSO Children’s Chorus

Stephen Farr (organ)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner
Michael Seal (assistant conductor)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 October, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Edward Gardner. Photograph: Jillian EdelsteinFrom reactions to the UK premiere in Birmingham this June of Jonathan Harvey’s huge choral work, Weltethos, it seemed that this particular event as part of “London 2012” bore a similar, puzzled relationship to the Olympics as did Britten’s opera Gloriana to the Coronation sixty years ago. Apart from the message of the potential for harmony between all faiths having strong links with the Olympic ideal, Weltethos is about as far removed from the Games’ hullabaloo of orgiastic emotionalism and rampant competition as it’s possible to be.

The Swiss Roman Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng – and president of the Global Ethic Foundation (Weltethos Stiftung) – compiled his text from the teachings of Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, divining their basic similarities. He approached Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle with a view to getting it set to music. The orchestra commissioned Jonathan Harvey, a composer long identified by his wide-ranging spirituality.

The problem is that religions and philosophies are exclusively word-based; however heightening, music can only be a secondary means of expression. The only times the words in Weltethos were anything like audible was when Samuel West was reciting them as a summary at the beginning of each of the six sections. Otherwise, the lone handle the audience had on the text was via a potted printed version given out on the door, which, to put it mildly, was overpoweringly tendentious and had the effect of reducing Harvey’s music to the role of soundtrack, with much of the full text deconstructed through the chorus to a repertoire of amplified whisperings, unison declamations and mighty choral walls of sound. Occasionally a word or two came through, and the children’s chorus, parroting platitudes like “Children are the future”, “care for each other”, “give up hatred and violence” came over loud, clear and mawkish. However worthy, Küng’s global ethic of religious harmony is simplistic and patronising.

Of all the contemporary ‘holy’ composers, Harvey, now unfortunately in poor health, in particular has engaged with the numinous to spellbinding effect in works such as Madonna of Winter and Spring and Towards a Pure Land, but the recent Wagner Dream sounded more like a dry parade of contemporary-music clichés.

His music for Weltethos is much more opulent, and he may well have thought of the repetitious format of the six sections as a mantra-like aid to meditating on Küng’s text. But there was a strong element of a process on autopilot, relieved by some naïve soundscapes for the religion in question – baleful shofar-style bellowing in the Jewish section or the attractively variable, folksy pitch of the cimbalom, set against a vast array of percussion, basilisk-like brass fanfares, torrential chords on the organ, with huge climaxes to each section appearing from nowhere but presumably based on a passage in the text. The virtuoso score is complex enough to need two conductors. At the end, though, there was the possibility that this might be music to believe in, with Edward Gardner steering it towards a sort of cosmic lift-off, but it was a long time coming.

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