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Jonathan Harvey and the beautiful terror

I haven’t written here about a concert for ages. But I haven’t been to a concert like the one this evening for ages. Ever, in fact.

I don’t know if it was the way I am at the moment or whether it was the end of a lovely weekend or being “surprised by joy”, but at the close of Jonathan Harvey’s epic piece Weltethos at the South Bank I was literally unable to move. I couldn’t really clap or cheer or speak much. I wonder whether others in the audience felt the same because the applause was fairly muted despite the hundreds of musicians and singers on stage.

I had been so in raptures with the closing ten minutes of this 90 minute piece that I was gurning and grinning next to my friend David like I was on ecstasy. And ecstasy was pretty much the musical experience.

The piece commissioned in 2006 by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic sets the words of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng and the six sections look at the commonalities of the six major world religions. I have to say, reading the programme notes, that my heart sank because it all sounded so dreadfully worthy.

I don’t really know Küng but the texts didn’t strike me as particularly deep or profound, though read out by Sam West, they were melodious and inoffensive. But it was Harvey’s music that was the star.

I’ve known his wonderful electronic music from the 80s, especially an early piece that treats his chorister son’s voice and the great bell of Winchester cathedral. And then a wonderful trilogy (?) of orchestral pieces treating Buddhist themes from the early Naughties.

But this was the cream on the milk. Harvey is very ill at the moment, I believe he’s close to death in fact, but this music is the distillation of a very life between music and spirituality. And his score here is an incredibly rich, dense and beautiful last great work.

It’s never obvious, never banal (despite a dreaded children’s choir that had to sing Küng’s rather cheesy words) and the unbelievable orchestral writing lifts the whole thing to another realm. I know this is probably more about me that an objective account of the music, but there were several moments in the 90 minutes which felt like the altered states of ayahuasca, most especially around the closing section and the third section on Hinduism.

With out lapsing into cheesy orientalism Harvey has mastered the art of hinting at the eastern without aping it. (The Tibetan horns at the beginning of “Body Mandala” are incredibly evocative but not imitative.) The sonic painting of this score hit me straight in the solar plexus. There’s a wonderful moment in the Hindu section where the text has talked about Shiva and VIshnu and the massive chorus roar over a deafeningly dense texture of brass and percussion and strings. The sound swirls and soars and smashes. And it reminded me of that bit in the Baghavad Gita where Krishna reveals his true nature to Arjuna: and it aint’ cute. It’s the end of the world and death and destruction and rebirth and everything all at once. It’s terrifying and poor Arjuna is struck dumb as I was by the theophany.

Similarly the closing ten minutes of radiant and seemingly endless swirls and lifts of choral and orchestral soundscape was almost too much for my little ears to bear. I felt my heart open and I was grinning like an oaf – but it was the beauty and the terror and I was so glad to have heard it.

I wonder how often such a massive score gets to be performed but I hope it becomes a 21st century classic like Belshazzar’s Feast was and places Harvey where he deserves to be – high, high up in the firmament.

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