It seems disingenuous to call Jonathan
Harvey one of Britain’s greatest composers, given his apparently
greater affinity with recent developments in French music. Messiaen
and his Spectralist successors between them make up the cultural
context for this disc. Yet the way those influences are combined
is distinctively Harvey.
Bird Concerto with Pianosong, while it isn't described
as such, is clearly a homage to Messiaen. The work uses recorded
birdsong, which is combined with the piano and orchestra. As
in Speakings, Mortuos Plango, and many other of
Harvey's works, the idea here is gradually to connect the timbral
and conceptual space between the two kinds of sound. Like Messiaen,
Harvey must slow down and lower the pitch of much of the birdsong
to bring it into the range of the instruments. The percussion
section acts as a bridge between the two sound-worlds, and friction
drums are used effectively to ground the otherwise flighty textures.
The solo piano part often resembles Messiaen's birdsong works,
but the textures are lighter. In fact the textures throughout
the piece, in the electronics, the orchestra and the piano are
considerably more approachable than in Messiaen. Harvey occasionally
opts for percussive or jagged textures, but they usually relent
sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the meditative moods that
the work often lapses into owe much to the Spectralists, particularly
Grisey, and also presumably to the composer's Buddhist faith
The other two works on the disc - Ricercare is presented
twice in versions for oboe and cello - both work on the more
straightforward premise of a solo instrument with live electronic
manipulation. One remarkable feature of Harvey's use of electronics
is his ability never to be defined by the state of the technology.
Ricercare dates from 1984, while Other Presences
was written in 2006. But both sound fresh and new. There is
no sense here of experimentation, rather Harvey shows complete
mastery of his means. Both works involve real time manipulation
of the solo instrument's sounds. The idea is to invoke other,
virtual instruments with related but clearly different sounds.
So the range of the instrument is extended through the electronics,
most effectively in the oboe version of Ricercare, where
a deep bass oboe or bassoon sound comes through as an accompanying
voice. Harvey's Buddhist faith is again invoked in Other
Presences, when the trumpet sound is manipulated and lowered
to resemble the dungchen, the long straight trumpet of Tibetan
The performances, sound manipulation and recording are all to
the highest standard. One disadvantage of an audio recording
is that you can't see where or what each sound is emerging from.
In fairness, that is often the case with live performances of
Harvey's music as well, and as the composer is clearly intent
on blurring the boundaries, perhaps it isn't relevant.
Pianist Hideki Nagano is the ideal soloist for the concerto.
His touch is precise, yet he always gives the impression that
he is exploring the textures and contrasts as much as the composer.
The players in the solo works are equally competent, but should
share equal honours with the Sound Intermedia team, who do an
excellent job of realising Harvey's terrifyingly ambitious electro-acoustic