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]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov (with Stefan
Solyom on ‘Timepieces’)
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, February–May 2007. DDD NMC D141 [79:59]
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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