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CD Review

Jonathan Harvey

Chamber Music

  • Concelebration 1-5,7
  • The Riot 1,2,4
  • Cirrus Light 2-4,6
  • Piano Trio 3,4,6
  • Be(com)ing 2,4
1 Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
2 Jean Kopperud, clarinet
3 Chris Finckel, cello
4 Stephen Gosling, piano
5 Daniel Druckman, percussion
6 Linda Quan, violin
7 David Fulmer, violin
Members of the New York New Music Ensemble/David Fulmer
Albany TROY1566 54:18
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That Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) was asked by Boulez to work at IRCAM in the early 1980s surely suggests how important the former's music really is. Yet Harvey is not so well known outside his native United Kingdom as he most certainly deserves to be – despite having held the Professorship of Music at Stanford between 1995 and 2000 as well as numerous posts inside the UK. Harvey has written for electronics, (large scale) orchestra, chamber, solo instrumental etc. Here's a CD from Albany's Troy label of five works, of which only The Riot and the Piano Trio have been previously available (on Stradivarius 33796 and Atma Classique 22254 respectively).

They are compelling works and make intriguing listening. The six members of the New York New Music Ensemble (NYNME) play under the direction of David Fulmer with a happy blend of enthusiasm and energy. Yet they approach the music in a way that never neglects the precision and detail necessary to prevent such apparently fragmented music from sounding… "experimental", which it decidedly is not. In fact it's actually conceived holistically and written with Harvey's quiet sense of direction, of oversight.

Concelebration (1981) has its roots in ritual, as did Harvey's perhaps best known piece, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. But it's ritual which is neither rhetorical nor overly dramatic. Rather, the four melodic instruments and lines "dance" individually; yet meet from time to time. Bells mark the onset of each of the (varying numbers of) cycle. There is contrast in both texture and tempo. Yet the overall effect is not of fragmentation, but of a sensible whole. Rather in the way in which the cause for celebration is never removed from the minds of those happy to be celebrating; yet their joy lifts the event.

The Riot (1993) takes the idea of subdued (because controlled, directed) virtuosity further. Again, individual themes and instrumental characteristics are apparently left to "blend" harmonically, melodically and hence texturally. Yet what may seem like a potentially arid arithmetical (or at least structural) formula which drives the work is actually natural, spontaneous, fluid and somehow inevitable. Just as waves and swirls of physically rioting individuals form their own patterns, so the musical ideas here seem to ebb and flow. But the players of the NYNME are never interested in "sound painting" (for its own sake), although there are some Extended Techniques and deliberately forced sounds. It's the movement of the music in the interests of Harvey's purpose that counts.

Cirrus Light was composed in Harvey's last year, during which he sat long hours in his wheelchair looking up at the high cirrus clouds. Again, this is not an impressionistic work: Harvey was more interested in the musical assimilation of stimuli such as nature and spirituality than its sonic surface. Yet one is struck by the wind instruments' sense of penetration, how they (seem to) reach over long distances, focus, light, color – and the way in which distinct objects can communicate over immensity. Again, it's the way in which composer writes an experience into music that is presented by these motivated players, not the experience itself.

The Trio dates from 1971; it, too, was written in celebration of musicality – the talents of Harvey's performing colleagues at the University of Southampton. Again, different melodic lines at different tempi feature. Lyricism contrasts with ritual, the chorale being a major vehicle for this. Once more, one is struck by the way in which the Ensemble's musicians play from inside the music, not as mere "messengers". It's a strangely elegiac work in three short movements, almost daring the players (and through them the listeners) to find unity despite marked contrasts particularly in timbre. Yet this is precisely what Finckel, Gosling and Quan achieve.

Be(com)ing (1979) once more looks at changes, change, changing and… becoming. Clarinet and piano only explore the ways in which music can change almost behind your back to have become something new, unexpected and quite other than what you were expecting. Yet again, this could have been interpreted by musicians unfamiliar with Harvey's preoccupations as formulaic, exploratory, self-conscious. Not so in this performance. It is the sound, the music, the subservience of out-of-synch cycles to the impact on the listener that counts. Yes, silence and energy are contrasted. But there is an integrity in the playing of Kopperud and Gosling that makes for a compelling experience. Nothing is either forced, artificial or labored. Extended Techniques abound (microtones in the clarinet, for instance). But attention is never drawn to them at the expense of musical momentum.

The play on the relationship between "being" and "becoming" implied by the title of this last piece would seem to stand for the approach of the players of the members of the New York New Music Ensemble throughout the 55 minutes of concentrated yet accessible music on this CD. They have both the necessary distance, and the appropriate attachment to Harvey's concerns, history and strengths to make this an attractive and illuminating collection.

These works were all recorded in November 2012 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, where the acoustic is bright and responsive; it presents the music in a forward fashion, leaving no corners to hide in. The slim booklet that comes with the CD contains minimal details about the works (by Harvey himself) and brief bios of the composer, performers and conductor. Given that the bulk of this music has not appeared on disk before, and given the obvious affinity between the NYNME and Harvey's forward-thinking yet substantial sound world, this is a CD that lovers of his music in particular – and new music in general – will not want to miss.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey