Time to discover Jonathan Harvey's choral music

Andrew NethsinghaMon 23rd May 2016

Andrew Nethsingha introduces his new recording of Harvey's choral works with the Choir of St John's, Cambridge

The journey of immersing myself in Jonathan Harvey’s music over the past seven years has been a very rewarding one. As with Beethoven’s late quartets, for instance, this is music that seems greater and greater as one gets to know it. Alongside some challenging music there is also music of profound simplicity - take the opening of The Annunciation’ or ‘I love the Lord’, for example.

We have performed this music in concerts over three continents; I have been struck by the way audience members comment (positively!) on this music more than on other great compositions we perform - ‘where can I buy a recording?’ they ask. There is something in this musical language that immediately connects with people. In our frantic smart-phone-fuelled lives, the universal spirituality of Harvey’s music can be transformative. Harvey associated himself with several world religions. His transcendence and numinosity are nourishing and healing to believers and non-believers alike.

Our first release on the new ‘St John’s Cambridge’ imprint gives an overview of Harvey’s choral music, countering simplicity with moments of complexity. Faith is often comforting, of course, but we should admit that it’s also demanding. Some clergy don’t allow their musicians to perform this music. I have never had that problem; I’m fortunate at St John’s to have a wonderful Dean, Duncan Dormor, who encourages my wide-ranging interests. He and I form a fruitful creative partnership; I feel inspired by the way Martin Neary and his colleagues were bold in commissioning much of Harvey’s oeuvre at Winchester in the 1970s. One of the lectures Duncan gives here is on Pentecostalism, and he enthuses about the way Harvey depicts Glossolalia in “Come, Holy Ghost” - Jesus’s disciples speaking in tongues.

Communicating a sense of ‘innerness’ is at the heart of what we do with music in worship. Harvey meditated daily for most of his life, and the resulting serenity and poise can be passed on to the listener. Other works are kaleidoscopic and full of amazing colours and imagination. I remember hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony on period instruments for the first time at the Proms in the 1980s - hearing such a new range of timbres, and thus a new range of emotions, was revelatory to me. (I longed for these performers to record the work - sadly, by the time they eventually did so they had learnt to play better in tune, and it took away some of the rustic charm!) Likewise, in Harvey’s Magnificat our ears are again opened to a new range of sonorities not usually heard in church. I have written extensive programme notes to help guide people through the more unusual passages of music.

In a concert it is accepted that the visual aspect is part of the performance. The performers are supposed to be centre-stage. Conversely, when conducting in a service I often wish I could be invisible to the congregation, so as not to distract people from worship. However, the visual aspect of liturgy can also be very powerful. Duruflé’s Requiem makes greater impact when sung in a service and accompanied by candles, black robes, processions, incense etc. Similarly, I have tried to make some of these Harvey works into liturgical dramas. In ‘Come, Holy Ghost’ I ask the singers to move around the Chapel, as the Holy Spirit spreads into the hearts of the people. There’s a visceral quality when the singers come up close to the listeners, as I Fagiolini demonstrated in their Monteverdi madrigal project. It’s good to break down the dividing line between singers and listeners, whether in the concert hall or in a church. We have recorded the Harvey disc in a way that makes the spatial effects audible - I hope that adds another dimension to the experience.

I feel passionately about this music - Harvey is worthy to stand alongside the great classical composers of the past. Even if you don’t normally buy discs of modern composers and/or of choral music, please give this a try. It’s the most important musical project that I’ve been involved in thus far, and I want to share it with you!

This new recording of Harvey's choral works is out now. For more information, visit: signumrecords.com

Andrew Nethsingha

Andrew Nethsingha is director of music at St John's College, Cambridge.

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