Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us


Jonathan Harvey

(Proms Composer Portrait: featuring performances by RAM graduate students)


Vers - for piano solo

Run Before Lightning - for flute and piano ( UK premiere)

The Riot - for flute/piccolo, bass clarinet and piano

Melissa Doecke (flute/piccolo)
Andrew Harper (bass clarinet)
Mary Callanan (piano)



There are times when one cannot get to see or hear every live event that perhaps one should. Life's many demands have a habit of getting in the way. Alas, they did for me with the recent Proms Composer Portrait that focussed on Jonathan Harvey, in advance of the world premiere of …towards a pure land *, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, and reviewed for Seen&Heard.

Who knows, had I heard the Portrait before the premiere the work might have made at least a little sense. With the wonders of BBC Radio 3 Listen Again I am at last getting around to doing my homework on
Harvey and here are my impressions.


Harvey 's opening remarks that …towards a pure land will become one panel in a triptych of commissions for Volkov and his orchestra is interesting. The Prom programme for the new work not did make this clear. Nor did it elaborate on the fact that the three will deal with aspects of Buddhist purification for mind, body and speech. The last, scheduled for 2008, will feature electronics - one of Harvey 's long term media of interest. In speculating on the connection between electronics and the transcendental he cites the “spectrum between noise and pitch [and the point] where tone seeps in.” Quite how it will manifest itself in practice has yet to be heard.


Vers , a work written for solo piano in 2000 on the occasion of Pierre Boulez's 75 th birthday Performed for the Portrait by RAM graduate student Mary Callanan, she emphasised something rather wistful in Harvey's writing to begin with, aided by clear articulation of the upper register. As Harvey himself commented, the piece proceeds very much on instinct, although guided in some sense by alliance to Boulez's.


Discussion concerning the use of specific timbres leads Harvey to comment that he uses a mixture of what he knows and arrives at through experimentation. Much of this can be sensed in the next work performed.


Running before lightning , Harvey comments, comes from vivid dream atop a cliff in a raging storm, mixing a sense of liberation despite danger along with exhilaration. The flute brings in the element of breathe with the piano's chasing canon providing volcanic activity. Surging piano contrasts by almost merging with the start of flute line before a period of unrest – a certain anticipation is there too – the energy within the parts winds up and with it the tension between the two instruments. A feeling of safety rather than danger is made apparent momentarily, but danger is but a swift twist away in the flute line. Like Harvey 's dream itself, the performance required and received in the expert hands of both players a fearless interpretation. Eerily-blown elements in the flute part gave an evocative sense of disorientation to the listening experience, thus creating a link with the music's dream source. The sudden ending leaves the listener hanging, wondering about what exactly comes next.


Discussion over the meaning of ‘spectralism', which he defines as “having broadly a sense of colour and acoustical spectrum”, the use of which as increased since Debussy as a means of transforming the harmonic series within the construction. Harvey admits that a larger scale can make such transformations easier for a listener to follow.


The Riot (1993), a work of “colour and high jinx”, to quote Harvey , closes the Portrait. Influences evident are drawn from jazz, swing music and boogie-woogie. Other layers are present: descending fifths in cyclic harmonies lead to echoes of Mozart, Bach and Scriabin as does Stravinsky at the start.


Feelings of the other composers do come through although they don't overly dominate proceedings. Harvey maintains his own voice by being able to mix the sounds and influences he is consciously working with. The exuberant performance conveyed a sense of fun that was very much implicit within the writing. Although in Part one of the work things feel sometimes about to spin out of control all three performers hold the work firmly within their grasp. Part two explores more some unconventional sonorities resulting from overblowing the instruments rather openly and effectively fuses them with obvious underlying jazz rhythms.


Two questions remain. Is this music I would willing revisit? I think not: although the spectral influence in itself is interesting when heard in microcosm, over a more expansive period it tends not to hold my attention. That in no way is a comment on the quality of the performances given as a part of this Composer Portrait. They were as dedicated and incisive as it might be possible to hear. Certainly the close microphoning of the individual voices brought out each nuance of colour and expression. Have I learnt more of Harvey in general? Undoubtedly yes, and for that reason I found the Portrait most interesting and useful. But it was the highly professional performances that brought Harvey 's themes to life with remarkable ease for anyone approaching the composer for the first time


The next composer portrait focuses on another spectralist, Magnus Lindberg.


Evan Dickerson


*Review of …towards a pure land http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2006/Jul-Dec06/prom35_0808.htm .

Link to Jonathan Harvey's website: http://www.vivosvoco.com/index.html

© Peter Grahame Woolf