… towards a pure land

Composer Portrait – Jonathan Harvey

Run Before Lightning
The Riot

Jonathan Harvey in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Melissa Doecke (flute), Andrew Harper (bass clarinet) & Mary Callanan (piano)

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 35

… towards a pure land [London premiere]
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In the first of his two Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, both including major new works, Ilan Volkov effortlessly displayed why the orchestral musicians seem to like him so much. Young and dashing (which helps), Volkov also has a fearless regard to repertoire (few others would contemplate a London première and a world première on consecutive days) and an extremely lucid podium manner with a clear and secure beat (even in fast music he seems to be conducting in slow motion).

In both this concert, which featured Jonathan Harvey, and the second (this review being written in hindsight), which included James Dillon, I came away thinking that if anyone is going to give two better Proms this year they really do have their work cut out.

Stephen Kovacevich – who has been playing at the Proms for over 40 years – returned to Kensington Gore for a delightfully, but firmly, poised account of Mozart’s ‘late’ C major concerto. He provided his own cadenza for the first movement, one so completely in style as to make you think that Mozart himself had left it. This was playing that proved, if any was necessary, that Mozart need not to be ghettoised into the ‘authentic’ bracket. Lithe and purposeful, and with a rich accompaniment given by Volkov and his players, this proved the perfect summer-evening entertainment. Long may Kovacevich’s appearances at the Proms continue.

The concert closed with a burnished account of Schumann’s grandest symphonic edifice. It might have lost a little power in the Cologne cathedral-inspired ‘extra’ movement (the penultimate one), and the finale itself perhaps wanted just a little more impetus. But hearing this performance was like being re-acquainted with an old friend and sitting down together over a single malt and relaxing in shared thoughts of old times. Certainly Volkov put paid to those oft-repeated remarks about Schumann’s orchestration being too dense; yes, you could hear the winds were doubled on strings, but the winds’ timbres carried clearly, as if cushioned on the strings’ air.

The concert had started with Jonathan Harvey’s first large-scale work in his three-year tenure as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Association, … towards a pure land. It will be followed by two complementary pieces, again focusing on Buddhist teachings, the next to concentrate on the body, the third (to include Harvey’s trademark electronics) to concentrate on the word. Hopefully there will be a Proms performance of all three, as … towards a pure land is hugely impressive.

Built from the quietest and smallest of musical germs, this 16-minute work, which opened the orchestra’s new home in Glasgow earlier in the year – ebbs and flows with two massive accelerandi in the middle, coming back to rest, towards the end, with the orchestra members chanting as well as playing. While some of it sounded distinctly Eastern, my immediate comparison was to a Mahlerian opening (or closing) movement, and I took to imagining whether it would work together with the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth. One thing puzzled me – Harvey’s use of a wind machine, which does sound remarkably unmusical. Given his expertise in electronics, surely a ‘sampled’ sound would have been so much more effective!

Earlier, at the third of this season’s four “Composers Portraits”, Andrew McGregor had interviewed Harvey who, with his white hair, moustache and beige jacket, looked for all the world as if he only needed a pith-helmet to have walked straight out of one of Victoria’s colonies. The epitome of an old-style, courteous English gentleman Harvey introduced three of his non-electronic chamber works, played – superbly – by graduates from the Royal Academy of Music.

Vers, with a look back to Harvey’s own Bhakti, honoured Pierre Boulez at the time of his 75th-birthday (which Rolf Hind played to Boulez with other celebratory pieces at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on his actual birthday (and which was available that afternoon as a CD, the South Bank stealing at least five years on most other concert halls). Showing distinctly impressionistic traits, Vers was followed by a flute-and-piano work that was inspired by a dream – that of Harvey himself just about to be struck dead in a thunderstorm. Run before Lightning was written last year as a competition piece and asks the flautist for various techniques that really do sound like panting for breath after running, and it was thrillingly virtuoso as well.

Finally – with pianist Mary Callanan and flautist Melissa Doecke joined by bass clarinettist Andrew Harper – we had The Riot, written for the Dutch ensemble Het Trio (so, yes, the title is an anagram, but also the music is – quite simply – a riot!). Harvey has admitted in print his influences, including Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments at the very start, but that – of course – is all part of the game.

Asked how he would envisage his ideal listener, Harvey thoughtfully replied that they should have an open and not busy mind. One imagines that anyone listening to … towards a pure land would have been intrigued and enchanted. Surely there can be no more successful composer in allowing us to open our minds – and hearts – and I trust Volkov and the BBCSSO will continue to bring Harvey’s works written for them (and this one is dedicated to them) over the next few years.

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