Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939)
Scena (1992)a [16:11]
Jubilus (2002)b [11:50]
Speakings (2007/8) [28:00]
Elizabeth Layton (violin)a; Scott Dickinson (viola)b;
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
rec. Glasgow City Halls, Candleriggs, 30 April 2009 (Scena, Jubilus) and 5-6 March 2009 (Speakings)
AEON AECD 1090 [55:22]

The three works recorded here make a very logical coupling indeed. Although purely instrumental they all deal – in one way or another – with the voice. Moreover each of them is partly based on earlier works.

The earliest one, Scena for violin and ensemble consists of five tableaux suggesting moods often found in operas. The five tableaux unfold without a break but are clearly identified as Lament, Mystical Event, Romantic Event, Dream and Metamorphosis. “They chart a spiritual transformation from a powerfully human sense of grief and rage to an otherworldly release” (Arnold Whittall in his sleeve-note for another recording of the piece once available on Montaigne MO 782034). The music of the various sections actually speaks for itself without any undue fuss and with much subtlety and refinement. It may be of interest to know that the final section, Metamorphosis is in fact a short set of variations on a theme from Lotuses for flute and string trio (1992) in which oriental echoes may be spotted.

Similarly Jubilus is an extension of another work for solo viola, Chant composed in 1992. Bruno Bossis’s detailed insert-notes recall that the composer had imagined a music that would evoke the image of a solitary monk chanting in a chapel on Mount Athos. Incidentally the title refers to the mediaeval jubilii (melismas). But Jonathan Harvey’s music would not be what it is if there was not – at some time or another – a reference to the Orient. So in the course of the work the music moves from Greece to Tibet; and the work again ends in oriental ecstasy with the viola singing in the highest register.

Speakings for large orchestra and electronics is the most substantial work here. It is the third panel of a trilogy composed during Harvey’s tenure as Composer in Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The earlier panels were … towards a Pure Land (2005) and Body Mandala (2006), both of which are now available on NMC D141. In spite of its title Speakings is a purely orchestral work for large orchestra with an ensemble of eleven soloists and electronics. The excellent notes by Bossis go into considerable detail about the way the work was composed, how the electronic part was realised and how it is made to interact with the orchestra. All this seemed rather abstract to me, but I really do not mind since the music is the most important thing. There is no denying that Speakings is one of Harvey’s most impressive scores and that his use of electronic devices is as subtle as ever. The work falls into three movements that “run through the course of mortal life, from the voice of the infant all the way to redemption, by way of the speech of adults” (Bossis). In the first movement babies’ cries are heard and used in different ways. The first movement opens at the verge of inaudibility suggesting the very first awakening of life. The music slowly opens up but seems reluctant to assert itself and, as a consequence, most of the first movement remains rather ambiguous with brief outbursts attempting to dispel the ambiguity. The second movement, the longest of the three, is “concerned with the frenetic chatter of adult life, as seen in the expression of domination, fear, love and so on”. Indeed, it opens with some orchestral “chatter” but soon unfolds in waves moving through strongly contrasting sections till the music reaches a cathartic mantra. Incidentally, this movement is an extension of another somewhat earlier work Sprechgesang. Finally the third movement has an appeasing hymn-like quality emphasised by the monodic character of some of its material and brings some sort of resolution by reaching a high-lying plateau where the music eventually dissolves quietly.

Both Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have already fully demonstrated their sympathy for Harvey’s music. Here again everyone concerned plays with assurance and commitment making the best of these fine scores by one of the most important composers of his generation whose music rarely fails to communicate, no matter how complex it may be.

This beautifully played, recorded and documented release is a must for all fans of Harvey’s music.

Hubert Culot

A must for all admirers of Harvey’s music.