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Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939)
Passion and Resurrection (1981/2)
Stuart MacIntyre (baritone) - Jesus
Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (tenor) - Pilate
Alison Smart (soprano) - Mary Magdalene
Carolyn Foulkes (soprano) - 2nd Mary
Kim Porter (contralto) - 3rd Mary
BBC Singers
Sinfonia 21/Martin Neary
Recorded: (live) St John’s, Smith Square, London, March 1999
SARGASSO SCD 28052 [52:58 + 31:57]


Harvey’s Passion and Resurrection is not an opera, although it may be produced in much the same way as Britten’s church parables on which it is clearly modelled. A liturgical drama in twelve scenes it is a re-telling of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and unfolds as a ritual in which some symbolism is evident. The opposition between darkness and light, good and evil, is emphasised by the orchestral scoring favouring brass instruments and percussion. These are often put into sharp contrast with a small body of strings and for most of the work’s length by the prominent role of the male voices. Significantly enough, the final scene (The Resurrection Garden) is dominated by female voices (the Three Marys and the Angels). The texts originate from various sources. The opening Liturgy is from the Church of England Book of Common Prayer, whereas the concluding Liturgy and dispersal use words from the Pashka of the Russian Orthodox Church with a final blessing again from the Book of Common Prayer. The eleven scenes of the Passion are a translation of an anonymous 12th-century Latin Passion Play from the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino. The final scene (The Resurrection) is another translation from the play-book from the monastery of St Benoît sur Loire. 

The overall structure of the piece is quite simple. The introductory Liturgy leads into the first of the twelve scenes. The final scene leads into the concluding Liturgy. The whole work is capped by a short instrumental coda. The scenes relating the Passion are all fairly short, starkly juxtaposed as tableaux or panels of a polyptych.  

They are all characterised by a rather austere, unadorned chant-like style perfectly in tune with the ritualistic nature of the work. As already mentioned, the Passion is dominated by male voices and their instrumental counterparts, i.e. brass and percussion. There is a notable exception in the eighth scene (Dialogue of Procula’s maid with Pilate and Procula) that strongly contrasts with the dark, ominous and hostile mood of the other scenes. It is as if this scene was an oasis of humanity within a world of fanatical brutality. There are some impressive moments throughout, e.g. the various soldiers’ and priests’ choruses with their hoquet-like effects. The Passion sections also include episodes in which the congregation joins in singing the hymns Pangue Lingua, at the end of Scene 5 and at the end of Scene 7, and Vexilla Regis, in the course of Scene 11. In fact, most of the musical material is based on these hymns (yes, the same hymns that open Holst’s Hymn of Jesus). The congregation also joins in the opening and final liturgies. As already mentioned, the final scene (The Resurrection Garden) is the most developed of the entire work. It also contains some of the finest music of the whole piece. The episodes of the Three Marys and of the Angels are particularly moving; but Passion and Resurrection as a whole is powerful and impressive for all its apparent simplicity. 

For obvious practical reasons, the music is by Harvey’s standards direct and straightforward although it displays the composer’s remarkable flair for arresting textures. These he manages to draw from limited orchestral forces (horn, trumpet, tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, percussion [2 players], 7 violins, 1 viola, 2 cellos, 2 double basses, large organ and chamber organ ad lib). Harvey, however, never writes down to his audience. Anyone familiar with his church music knows the often extraordinary results he can achieve, even when working from simple material. A good example of this is the well-known anthem Come Holy Ghost. Although he does not use any electronics in this work, Harvey nevertheless has found a simple, yet highly effective way to suggest a spatial dimension. This happens at the very end of the work, after the final blessing, in the short coda in which four brass players disperse slowly to the four corners of the cathedral, and eventually into the streets. This has been superbly brought off in this recording. 

All performers are very good indeed, with excellent contributions from various soloists drawn from the ranks of the BBC Singers however the female soloists are really outstanding. The sound of this live recording is also very fine, with very little extraneous noise. In short, Passion and Resurrection is a major work by a major composer. It definitely deserves to be known. Recommended. 

Hubert Culot 




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