A guide to the music of the British composer who has died aged 73
Jonathan Harvey studied at Cambridge, privately with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller, and with Babbitt at Princeton. He taught at the universities of Southampton and Sussex. His early music showed enthusiasms ranging from Britten and Messiaen to Stockhausen and Davies; since the early 1970s he developed a more integrated style and he emerged as an outstanding composer of electronic music (Mortuos plango, vivos voco, 1980). In the 1980s he produced much music at IRCAM after receiving an invitation from Pierre Boulez to work there. From 2005 to 2008 he held the post of Composer in Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and in 2009 he was Composer in Residence at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Harvey was awarded the Prince Pierre de Monaco Composition Prize in 2009 for the orchestral work Speakings; in the same year he became the only British composer since its inception in 1970 to win the Charles Cros Grand Prix du Président de la République for a life’s work (previous winners included Messiaen, Lutosławski, Carter, Boulez, Xenakis, Ligeti, Kurtág and Kagel) and in both 2010 and 2011 he won the St Caecilia Prize of the Belgian Musical Press Union. After a long terminal illness of the central nervous system, Harvey died at his home in Lewes on December 4, 2012.
'Wheel of Emptiness'
Death of Light/Light of Death. Advaya. Ricercare una melodia (two versions). Tombeau de Messiaen. Wheel of Emptiness
Ictus / Georges-Elie Octors
Cyprès CYP5604 (77' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Three of the compositions on this disc offer ideal introductions to Jonathan Harvey’s work, showing how music centring on a single line or instrument can evolve into a potently imaginative discourse when that line or instrument is manipulated electronically. In Ricerare una melodia the moment of revelation comes when the electronic material opens out a much wider registral spectrum than that ‘naturally’ available on the trumpet or oboe. Something similar happens both in the brief Tombeau de Messiaen, where the interaction of piano and electronics unleashes a torrential, joyously uninhibited commemoration of the French master, and in Advaya. All three of these works have been recorded before but Harvey enthusiasts should still find it difficult to resist this new release, not only for its outstanding recording quality but for the interest and substance of the programme as a whole. The disc ends with the most striking evidence of Harvey’s versatility. Death of Light/Light of Death is scored for five performers, without electronics, but with the harpist doubling on tam-tam. It offers music of an intensity and, in the end, ceremonial solemnity which few composers today can match. With performances of supreme technical assurance and magnificently lucid sound, this is an outstanding disc in every respect.
Madonna of Winter and Spring. Percussion Concerto. Song Offerings
Penelope Walmsley-Clark (sop) Peter Prommel (perc) Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Peter Eötvös; London Sinfonietta / George Benjamin
Nimbus NI5649 (78' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
This is an impressive disc indeed: a strong cast, a varied programme, and music of great integrity and beauty. In relation to many British scores that have garnered recent critical praise, Harvey more than holds his own. The three pieces date from the 1980s and ’90s. Each introduces a ‘foreign’ element to the orchestra in a slightly different way. There are elements of the competitive streak between soloist and orchestra in the Percussion Concerto; in Song Offerings relations between the two elements are more symbiotic, as one might expect; but in Madonna of Winter and Spring, the most extended piece here, the ‘foreign’ element is assumed by synthesisers and electronics. This piece, in particular, sums up Harvey’s preoccupations: the interaction of the different media, and the programmatic elements derived from the composer’s faith.
At intervals the orchestra recedes, creating electro-acoustic ‘windows’ reminiscent of similarly mixed-media scores (Birtwistle and Boulez come to mind); at others, individual instruments appear in a quasi-soloistic context, adding an extra dimension to the texture. Moreover, the quality of these interpretations gives this recording a special appeal. The electro-acoustic element is well captured and conveys something of the spatial imaging mentioned in the composer’s booklet-notes.
All three pieces receive committed, dynamic interpretations: if only contemporary music could always enjoy such advocacy.
Scena. Jubilus. Speakings
Elizabeth Layton (vn) Scott Dickinson (va) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
Aeon AECD1090 (55’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Speakings (2007-08) is the centrepiece of an orchestral trilogy whose outer movements, Body Mandala and …towards a Pure Land, have already been recorded by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (see below).
The work’s title identifies a powerful, paradoxical metaphor: that music’s capacity to convey meaning – to speak – is in no way inhibited by the absence of sung or spoken text. The intricate yet potently expressive ways in which Speakings does this are made admirably clear in Bruno Bossis’s booklet-notes. Here there is no question of falling back on technology as a substitute for strong emotion. Jonathan Harvey’s ability to work with very basic sound-images and to suggest how elemental physical and spiritual qualities can (and should) generate a genuinely contemporary, living musical language have never been more directly perceptible. By the time this recording was made Volkov and the orchestra had fully surmounted the score’s considerable technical challenges; and although the music yields special rewards when heard in its proper place within the trilogy, the delicacy and imagination of its particular live/electronic synthesis still come vividly across.
Speakings is complemented by a pair of shorter instrumental compositions which animate the adversarial yet complementary relationship between a soloist and an ensemble. In both Scena (1992) and Jubilus (2002) an evident spirituality interacts with those more earthy aspects of conscious life which give the music its dance-like vibrancy and song-like lyricism, realised with maximum spontaneity and technical skill in these recordings. Fixing all the multifarious acoustic nuances of this music on to disc without excessive artifice is a challenging task which the Aeon team have accomplished with special flair.
Tranquil Abiding. Body Mandala. Timepieces.
White as Jasmine. …towards a Pure Land
Anu Komsi (sop) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov, Stefan Solymon
NMC NMCD141 (80’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
There is so much to praise about the works on this CD that it’s hard to know where to begin. Jonathan Harvey’s music juxtaposes moments of disarming simplicity, of naivety almost, with others of considerable sophistication and intricacy. Often these are held in fine balance, the former giving the listener an accessible entry-point or anchor, and allowing the latter considerable scope for development within an audibly logical discourse. The opening premise of both Tranquil Abiding and Body Mandala are cases in point: in the first, an alternation of two sonorities carries the piece forwards inexorably to its conclusion. By contrast, the arc structure of …towards a Pure Land engenders considerable discontinuity. Each piece inhabits its own space. The virtuosity of Harvey’s orchestration is breathtaking at times (try the conclusion of the second of the three Timepieces, for example), but it is virtuosity in the service of deeply intelligent musical argument; there’s nothing merely flashy or self-serving.
Not surprisingly to those familiar with Harvey’s concerns, all but one of these pieces explore different facets of spirituality, particularly those drawn from Eastern religions. Perhaps the most immediately involving is White as Jasmine, based on texts by a 12th-century Hindu saint. Here, soprano Anu Komsi delivers a superbly controlled performance of great vocal beauty. In her first entry, she is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding instruments (and it’s satisfying, by the way, to hear singing in which each pitch can be clearly discerned, vibrato notwithstanding). But the musicianship here transcends questions of technique: all the participants deserve equal credit for their involvement in a richly rewarding project. A worthy winner of a Gramophone Award for Contemporary music.
Choral Works – The Angels. Ashes Dance Back. Marahi. The Summer Cloud’s Awakening
Jonathan Harvey, Carl Faia (elec) Clive Williamson (synth) Ilona Meija (fl) Arne Deforce (vc) Latvian Radio Choir / Kaspars Putniņš; James Wood
Hyperion CDA67835 (64’ · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon
Choral music has been a constant in Jonathan Harvey’s output, ranging from the directness of his anthems to the complexity of several large-scale works. Such relative extremes are equally evident on this new disc of pieces written between 1994 and 2001. Thus the calm ecstasy emerging out of and back into the predominant stasis of The Angels is as much a continuation of the Anglican choral tradition as Ashes Dance Back is an outcome of Harvey’s involvement with Eastern spirituality – the medieval Persian text fragmented and combined with electronics in an evocative rendering of change and renewal. Marahi is a ‘hymn of adoration to the divine feminine’ in which Marian hymns (in Latin) and Buddhist prayers (in Sanskrit) are superimposed in music of cumulative tension and heightened release.
The Summer Cloud’s Awakening again draws on Buddhist scripture. Here the music is informed by a motif from Wagner’s Tristan, while the alternation of harmonic density and a rhythmic dynamism in which flute and cello are to the fore – culminating in a flurry of Tibetan drums and bells as the cycle of death and rebirth is transcended – ensures an overtly developmental, even goal-directed quality. The Latvian Radio Choir is evidently unfazed by the demands it encounters, while the sound has an ideal depth and spaciousness.
We will be publishing a tribute to Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall in the January issue of Gramophone (on sale December 28).
Watch a video of Harvey's Messages below: