This is an essential disc not only for admirers of Jonathan Harvey’s work in general but for all those interested in contemporary sacred music. Harvey stretched the limits of Anglican church music in a way not seen, really, since Tippett’s Evening Canticles from 1961, but did so with regularity and consistency. I recall fellow church music enthusiasts in the early 1980s making real (and largely successful) efforts to come to grips with this music, in a way they would never have done for the rest of Harvey’s output; works such as I love the Lord were totems of the acceptable face of modern church music. But his work has never achieved a regular foothold in the worship of the Anglican Church, and in part this must be attributed to the technical difficulty of some of it. This outstanding recording may help to change that.
The relatively straightforward I love the Lord (1977) is in fact what opens the disc, preparing the way for a staggering performance of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, written the following year. The Magnificat is epic in scope; it is hard to believe that it lasts just under eight minutes. Certainly these are difficult works, including various vocal techniques (whispering, glissandos, percussive repetition of consonants, etc) hardly common in the normal run of church music, but the investment the choir has clearly put into them really gives extraordinary results. As Andrew Nethsingha writes in his detailed and reflective notes, ‘Some contemporary music experts have considered Harvey’s church music to be of lesser importance than his instrumental works. I want to stress how imaginative, innovative and courageous Harvey was in pushing the boundaries of church music, without ever losing the intensity of spirituality which underpins all the great religious music.’ Precisely so, though it was of course essential that Harvey be able to write for a choir of sufficient technical ability to cope with his demands – and this was the great contribution of Martin Neary, with his pioneering work in commissioning new work at Winchester – and Harvey was never a straighforward Christian believer, as Nethsingha also acknowledges.
The disc also includes stunning performances of Come, Holy Ghost (1984), another of the composer’s works that has proved more popular, though its technical demands should not be underestimated; the dazzling Missa brevis (1995); and the very moving The Annunciation (2011), written right at the end of Harvey’s life for this choir, as well as two exuberant works for solo organ (the Toccata also employs tape) peformed by Edward Picton-Turbervill. This recording is outstanding on every count: remarkable and under-peformed repertoire, beautfully performed and recorded. I wonder if St John’s might next consider other works from Harvey’s non-liturgical output, such as the wonderful Forms of Emptiness and Sobre un Éxtasis de Alta Contemplación? One can hope.