Total Immersion: Jonathan Harvey

Soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Brabbins

Barbican, London, 20 January 20124 and a half stars

HarveyThe Barbican's Total Immersion series presents a series of concert weekends every year themed on selected contemporary composers. In recent years there have been memorable profiles of Tristan Murail, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Brian Ferneyhough. It's a valuable series, since it enables the listening public to hear some of the most important orchestral music to have been composed in recent times. This year's Total Immersion series began last weekend with two days given over to the music of Jonathan Harvey.

Harvey, now in his seventies and sadly in ill health, has over the years been something of an outsider figure on the UK classical music scene. Though celebrated abroad, in France, Germany, the US and elsewhere, he has never really garnered the popularity in his native country enjoyed by some of his younger contemporaries. But despite this, his body of work, as was amply displayed over this weekend, is a deep and rich one, and will doubtless have much to offer to generations of listeners to come.

Things kicked off early on Saturday with the screening of a documentary about Harvey by Barrie Gavin, a talk on Harvey's Madonna of Winter and Spring by Professor Jonathan Cross of Oxford University, and a concert featuring music for piano and solo voice. Saturday evening began with a concert of Harvey's outstanding choral music, and ended with an orchestral concert with performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Body Mandala and Messages are two orchestral works composed in the last decade. Inspired by the composer's experience of witnessing a purification ritual in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Body Mandala opens with a deep trombone drone, an ominous pedal note with directly ritualistic connotations. Out of this drone springs some fiery flurries on clarinet and piccolo, with the whole rounded by resonant percussion, and also featuring amplified water-basins. The piece seeks to thread a line between frenzy and calm, though the onus in Brabbins's reading was on the calm, the piece climaxing with a sequence of vast, lush spectral-esque chords gradually moving upwards semitone by semitone.

Messages is a roll-call of the different angels said in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to people the divine regions. For twenty-five minutes, through seven sections that mirror the seven heavens, the choir intones, whispers, chants and sings the names of the divine emissaries. In the first and last sections the choir acted like one great uniform complex voice, speaking the names in a breath-pattern of inhale-exhale. Occasionally there was some muddiness and premature entries, but the overall impression was powerful, and the arrayed resonant percussion sounded beautifully crystalline.

Madonna of Winter and Spring, which took up the second half of this orchestral concert, is one of Harvey's major works. Composed in 1986, it is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, and comes from the same era of music as Tristan Murail's Désintegrations. The two works bear some resemblance in terms of their respective sound-worlds and their scoring for orchestra and IRCAM-derived electronics. But Harvey's piece is possibly the better, and as was the case in the two earlier pieces, Harvey's mastery of the orchestra was profoundly evident.

The piece is divided into four movements, Conflict, Descent, Depths, and Mary. The first of these, as you might expect, is harsh and angular, jagged melodies on the violins prompting a spider-dance of counterpoint around the orchestra. As the piece progresses the electronics come more to the fore and earthly violence is subsumed into divine tranquillity and emptiness.

One aspect of Harvey's interest as a composer, and something that maybe explains his someway isolated figure in British music, is his incorporating in his work many different stylistic influences: from his early time as a boy chorister, to his meeting with Benjamin Britten, to his studies with Schoenberg's student Erwin Stein, his encounter with Stockhausen, studies with Milton Babbit, and association with the French spectral school and involvement with IRCAM. All of this is distilled in Madonna of Winter and Spring in supple and varied orchestral writing. As the piece slowly, sparsely drifted towards its denouement, it struck me how confident a composer it takes to compose so much empty space around the orchestra, most of whose players sit idle in the work's latter stages as scattered rivulets of electronic sound do their work.

HarveySunday night saw the UK premiere of Harvey's opera Wagner Dream, which had its world premiere in Amsterdam in 2007. For almost thirty years, as is attested by Cosima Wagner's diaries, Richard Wagner planned to write an opera, Die Sieger, based on a Buddhist theme. At the time of his death he was still planning to write the opera, but as things turned out it wasn't to be.

Harvey's opera is an imaginitive realisation of Wagner's aim. Set in Venice on the day of Wagner's death, it sees Wagner (acted here by Nicholas Le Prevost), after a quarrel with Cosima (Ruth Lass), having the heart attack that would kill him. At the moment of his death he is visited by Vairochana (Simon Bailey), his spirit guide in death. Reflecting on the chance he missed to compose Die Sieger, Wagner instantaneously imagines the entire opera, who story is based on the love of the lower-caste woman Prakriti (Claire Booth) for the noble Ananda (Andrew Staples), a cousin of the Buddha. The opera duly unfolds before the audience's eyes at the front of stage, while Wagner along with his household and Vairochana stand in a frieze behind it. Appearing to Wagner as if in the blink of an eye, the opera is his last vision before death.

Before the show began the venue was full of incense. And this ceremonial atmosphere continued as the performers walked out onto the stage in a solemn single-file procession to no applause. Concert-going always has the undertone of a ritual such as a mass service, and the likeness was at the fore here.

Wagner Dream is a dazzling, ambitous, ambiguous mix of contrasted elements: an acted element and sung element, a framing story (Wagner's death) and an inner story (Prakriti's love for Ananda), passion and calm, vitality and death, staid seriousness and ridiculous absurdity. So in this respect it is a worthy addition to the operatic tradition – it provokes enough for you to want to see it again, and leaves many of itsquestions unanswered. Its themes of death, the hereafter, and brooding over one's life choices, too, carry prescience for Harvey's own current stage of life.

This production was semi-staged and had some outstanding performances. Claire Booth in particular dominated the auditorium with her soprano, Simon Bailey's bass-baritone was an ideal of equanimity for his Vairochana, and Roderick Williams was understated and solid as the Buddha. Coupled with the singing was a fine performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, perfectly attuned to Harvey's lush score.

By Liam Cagney

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