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CD Review

Jonathan Harvey

  • The Angels (1994) 1
  • Ashes Dance Back (1997) 2
  • Marahi (1999) 3
  • The Summer Cloud's Awakening (2001) 4
2,4 Jonathan Harvey & Carl Faia, electronics
2,4 Clive Williamson, synthesizer
4Ilona Meija, flute
4 Arne Deforce, cello
1 Latvian Radio Choir/Kaspars Putniņš
2,3,4Latvian Radio Choir/James Wood
Hyperion CDA67835
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This exciting CD from Hyperion contains an hour of not so recent music from British contemporary composer, Jonathan Harvey, who was born in 1939. Most closely associated with electronics and music that relies heavily on technology, Harvey also still loves, and responds lovingly to, the human voice. The Latvian Radio Choir is featured in four works which evoke a variety of atmospheres and situations in works written between 1994 and 2001. They're a full-time professional choir of 25 singers which was formed 70 years ago. Kaspars Putniņš, who is heard here in the first piece, The Angels is one of its two chief conductors. James Wood conducts the other three works. The Choir performs works from the Renaissance to the present, having as one of its aims the constant exploration of the voice's many facets and capabilities, including extending its limits.

That's certainly what the works here-presented do. They don't have a strictly experimental air, though sounds (whistles, whispers, animal noises, expulsions of breath, cries and the declaimed word) are as integral to the music as are more conventional articulations. Unlike such an extension of the conventional by other composers, the emphasis here is on the avoidance of parody and exaggeration. Even if unfamiliar with the texts, which are by John Taylor (1914-2001), Rumi, and sacred European Renaissance, Buddhist and Sanskrit texts (Harvey is very interested in Eastern religion and philosophy), the quality of the Latvian Radio Choir is striking. Alongside expressiveness (timings and tempi, pauses and accelerandi/rallentandi and changes in dynamic in particular) are precise and practiced enunciation with the greatest technical acuity.

The sound of the Choir with electronics in Ashes Dance Back and particularly The Summer Cloud's Awakening is quietly spectacular without being showy. Just as Harvey directs us to concentrate on our appreciation of texts in the original language lest their impact be diminished by translation, so it's best to let the blocks and drifts of sound work on us without necessarily dissecting their every component in these pieces. The Summer Cloud's Awakening is scored also for flute and cello, though in no way are these concerto instruments. It's perhaps because the import of the text for this piece in particular addresses loss, impermanence and the interplay between void and longing, that we respond to the sound in horizontal (Eastern) fashion as much as to a series of (discrete) events. Harvey has succeeded here very well. James Wood, who conducts this piece (as he also does both Ashes Dance Back and Marahi), commissioned it for the 20th anniversary of his New London Chamber choir.

The Angels answers a quite different question. Like the other three works, it's slow and evolving, rather than obviously structured in time. This is not to say that it's minimal or latter-day Ligeti. Yet the music exploits the strengths and qualities of calm and fluidity as these can be paired with some of the exigencies of conventional Anglican choristers facing one another in a large open space for worship. The words are poetry by the one-time Bishop of Winchester cathedral, with which Harvey was closely associated for many years. In contrast Ashes Dance Back draws on Eastern thought and supports Rumi's text praising the dissolution represented by death. It's a difficult work to perform, not so much for its complexity as for the techniques called for… microtones, fragmentation, harmonic compression, an extremely delicate balance between acoustic, momentum, text and electronic threads, which runs the risk of failing because so tenuous. In this realization it emphatically does not. Marahi is a hymn to the Feminine and draws on more than one textual source. It too makes substantial demands on the singers.

Harvey's achievement in each of these works is to have externalized the emotion or experience to which the music relates or alludes. Longing, resignation, ecstasy cannot reasonably be conveyed to condemning the music to dullness or spurious flashes. Writing of great stature embraces these "states" and leaves you intimately and profoundly aware of them without "portraying them". That's what Harvey does here.

It's the singing and blend of accompanying and supporting electronics (which most of the time, while not emulating the human voice, share the latter's sonic qualities) that strike the listener about this CD, the four works on which, of course, are not available elsewhere. It's music of intensity, but an accepting, confident intensity and warmth which has no need to assault the listener, despite being at times both unconventional and challenging. As an excursion into the worlds of pitched and unpitched, gentle and more taut, pressing and expansive sounds, it is remarkably compelling music. For followers of Harvey's always intriguing and beautiful compositional soundscape, it's an essential CD. The recording is, of course, first class; the booklet informative; and the performance – as has been explained – exceptionally accomplished. It makes for a satisfying yet intriguing listen. Even if the fact that Harvey is working towards the further reaches of sonic production has disinclined you to embrace his music, the uniqueness, originality, almost self-effacing qualities of these four works should persuade on repeated listening.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.