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Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939)
Tranquil Abiding (1999) [14:46]
Body Mandala (2007) [13:18]
Timepieces (1988) [18:42]
White as Jasmine (2000) [15:41]
… towards a Pure Land (2006) [17:17]
Anu Komsi (soprano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov (with Stefan Solyom on ‘Timepieces’)
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, February–May 2007. DDD
NMC D141 [79:59]
Experience Classicsonline


This beautifully produced disc of orchestral music from the prolific Jonathan Harvey shows a couple of interesting connections between the various works. The most notable is probably the fact that four of the five pieces draw their inspiration from aspects of Eastern mysticism; the composer’s fascination with Buddhism, Hinduism and other philosophies is well known, so it is good to have a selection of major works that explore these interests. The other link is the performers: Harvey was composer-in-residence for the BBC Scottish SO during 2005-7, and it’s good to have such superbly played and authoritative readings of the two works from that period.
 
The first piece, Tranquil Abiding, comes from 1999 and was jointly commissioned by New York’s Riverside Symphony and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It is scored for chamber sized orchestra with large and exotically diverse percussion section. It is in many ways the most impressive work on the disc, casting an unusually hypnotic spell over the listener. The structure appears to revolve around the oscillation of two chords that rock gently to and fro, gradually building in intensity and orchestral colour. It’s not as static as Feldman, though Harvey seeks to interpret the work’s Buddhist title as exploring ‘a state of single-pointed concentration’, and Michael Downes’s liner note refers rightly to Harvey creating a sense of ‘breathing as an organic phenomenon’. He goes on to say that several listeners have reported to the composer that the most effective way to experience the piece is to breathe in synchrony with the repeated oscillation – something I found myself doing. It’s a quite extraordinary experience, very much repaying repeated listening, and if I’ve made it out to be uninteresting, this is most certainly not the case. Yes, a trance-like state is possible while listening, but the increasingly complex melodic outbursts intensify to a climactic point where the percussion’s full range is brilliantly exploited, only to subdue and end with gentle scatterings of wispy, almost pointillistic sounds (bamboo clusters and string pizzicatos) that bring us full circle.
 
Body Mandala shocks us back to life with its restless pulsations of sound and almost jazz-like improvisatory solos. The work this time takes its influence from Buddhist rituals that Harvey witnessed in Tibetan monasteries, and the composer seems to want to recreate these authentic sounds within the augmented Western orchestra. Thus we get lip vibrato on brass instruments and circular bowing on the strings and, best of all towards the end, Tibetan cymbals dipped into water. Once again, it’s a thoroughly captivating experience and one which seems, in Downes’s words, to ‘create the sense that we are witnessing a mysterious ceremony’.
 
Harvey’s titles are carefully picked and the three movements that constitute Timepieces, the earliest work on the disc, are ‘at once representations of various fantastical types of clock, and pieces that explore how music can manipulate and transform our perception of time’. Clever use of metre and rhythm is one of his structural devices here, as is the use of a second conductor who beats in tempi different from the main conductor, something which immediately recalls Stockhausen’s Gruppen, though the result is very different. Once again, a great variety of orchestral timbre and colour is employed to take the listener on the journey, occasionally sounding like a bizarre, psychedelic trip round a clockmaker’s studio, at other times like a minimalist dance.
 
White as Jasmine is the only vocal work here and is also the only one inspired by Hindu texts rather than Buddhist origins. It also differs from the others in its sparing though effective use of electronics. What the listener makes of the texts will be entirely personal, but they represent – as might be expected – a physical, emotional and spiritual journey towards a transcendental state. Once again, Harvey’s brilliance as an orchestral magician is in evidence, with wind, brass and percussion all imaginatively deployed and the synthesised sound, making a telling appearance in the final song ‘Looking for your Light’, taking us a stage further in the quest for enlightenment and spiritual fulfilment. It is sung with a beautifully gauged purity by contemporary specialist Anu Komsi, fast becoming the Jane Manning of our times. The full texts are included in the booklet.
 
towards a Pure Land rounds off the disc in impressive fashion. It is meant, with Body Mandala, to be part of an eventual trilogy (the centrepiece is still forthcoming) and, rather like White as Jasmine, takes us on a complex journey. Seemingly chaotic fragments build, clash and subside, with many familiar orchestral instruments asked to produce unusual sounds (as at 6:50). This chaos abounds over basically slow moving harmonies and the whole work, like most of the others, eventually finds a peace and calm that ‘point towards the possibility of still greater beauty in the future’.
 
It’s all superbly played and conducted and the audio quality is first rate. I am indebted, like most listeners these unfamiliar scores will be, to the liner note by Michael Downes which is lengthy and informative. No-one will be complaining about value for money with a whisker short of 80 minutes, and if you care about contemporary music, especially that of one of our finest elder statesmen, you should have this disc.
 
Tony Haywood
 



 


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