Monday 23 May 2016

Deo - music by Jonathan Harvey from St John's College, Cambridge

Deo - Jonathan Harvey - St John's College, Cambridge - Signum
Jonathan Harvey I Love the Lord, Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, Come Holy Ghost, Praise ye the Lord, Missa Brevis, The Royal Banners Forward Go, The Annunciation, Toccata for Organ and Tape and Laus Deo; Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha, Edward Picton-Turberbill; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 22 2016
Star rating: 5.0

A new imprint from St John's College, Cambridge, launched in fine style by a terrific disc devoted to the sacred music of Jonathan Harvey

Jonathan Harvey - photo Maurice Foxall
Jonathan Harvey
photo Maurice Foxall
This new disc is the first of a new Choir of St John's Cambridge imprint from Signum Classics. And a striking first disc it is too. Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College, Cambridge, with organist Edward Picton-Turbervill, have devoted the disc to an exploration of the sacred music of Jonathan Harvey.

Harvey's music often explored the religious and the numinous, the sense of the presence of God. And here we have his music mainly for the Anglican Liturgy, I Love the Lord, Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, Come Holy Ghost, Praise ye the Lord, Missa Brevis, The Royal Banners Forward Go, The Annunciation and the two organ pieces Toccata for Organ and Tape and Laus Deo.

I have sung two of the pieces on the disc, I Love the Lord and Come Holy Ghost, neither of them easy. All the writing on the disc is challenging and the programme might seem foolhardy when the trebles, on the top line, have an average age of around 10. But Harvey was a chorister himself and whilst his writing challenges and uses techniques not often found in the music for Evening Service, the music is never less than achievable. On this disc Andrew Nethsingha and his choir do something remarkable, they make you forget the age of the singers and capture your imagination with superb performances.

I Love the Lord, written in 1977 for Winchester Cathedral, takes  a semi-chorus singing a G major triad and places it against the rest of the choir. The tutti part moves in and out of bitonality, almost as the psalmist tests his faith. Here Andrew Nethsingha places the eight singers of the semi-chorus at some distance from the choir, to magical effect. Textures are clear and lines firm, with the bitonal moments placed admirably.

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge  - photo Ben Ealovega
The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
 -photo Ben Ealovega
Jonathan Harvey's Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis was written in 1978 for Martin Neary. It starts like a rocket; Harvey talks about the Magnificat painting a picture of a cosmic Mary. For much of the time, the boys sing a type of cantus firmus with the men surrounding it with advanced vocal techniques which, common enough in 20th century secular music, are rarely heard in Anglican choir stalls. Rather than supporting the choir, the organ adds numinous moments. The choir don't just sing the piece, they make it go with a real swing, and there is a magical moment when the treble solo soars above the rest of the choir.

The Nunc Dimittis starts with just a solo baritone singing a highly angular line. The discreet choral accompaniment suddenly develops into something far more as the end of the canticle seems to explode with chaos, and a huge organ chord. The doxology returns to the cantus firmus with elaborations round it.

Harvey's Toccata was written in 1980 for organ and pre-recorded tape, essentially an excitingly fast interaction between high, quiet organ and a pre-recorded drumming sound. It explores a fascinating range of timbres. And then after four minutes of quiet intensity, all hell breaks loose briefly, before the opening rhythms return.

Come, Holy Ghost, written in 1984, is described by Andrew Nethsingha as a theme and variations. Harvey starts with the plain chant Veni creator spiritus sung solo, and then passed around with the choir adding drones as if notes were left hanging. There is a lovely transparency to the performance, with very much a sense of fragments of melody floating. When the trebles start singing multiple fragments in free time the result is a magical web of sound (in St John's College Chapel, Andrew Nethsingha gets the trebles to spread out through the chapel at this moment). Then the trebles return to a cantus firmus whilst the lower parts create a fine sense of free glossolalia. The work is full of magical moments, all beautifully realised in this performance.

Praise ye the Lord (1990) is a short, highly exuberant piece with performances (from both choir and organ) exhibiting great joy despite the trickiness of the writing.

Harvey's Missa Brevis was written for Westminster Abbey in 1995 (the Tercentenary of Henry Purcell). The Kyrie is densely chromatic, yet clear in shape with a great interaction between upper and lower voices. The Gloria starts with a grand gesture, and then goes at a terrific lick, again with two groups in the choir interacting with the final section increasing in density. The Sanctus is dark and intense, building in density and volume to the massive chords of the Hosanna, following a short edgy solo for the Benedictus, the Osanna returns. The Agnus Dei opens quiet and comforting, but the texture develops in intensity and complexity as the cries become more anguished.

Andrew Nethsingha's note makes it clear that a substantial amount of numerology and harmonic theory are involved in Harvey's invoking of the numinous and the apocalyptic. But the beauty of this performance is that, if you wish, you can forget about all this, enjoy the beauties on their own terms, and marvel at the superbly assured performance.

The Royal Banners Forward Go was written in 2004 for St John's College, Cambridge, when David Hill directed the choir. It sets three verses from the Latin hymn, Vexilla Regis. Initially steady and solemn, it becomes more intense and for the final verse a treble soloist floats magically above the texture. Laus Deo is the only piece on the disc played out of chronological context. Written in 1969 it is a high energy work, quite astonishing and a tour de force from both player (there is a video of Edward Picton-Turbervill talking about the piece on YouTube) and composer.

The Annunciation, setting an Edwin Muir poem, was written in 2011 for Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College, Cambridge. It was one of Jonathan Harvey's last works. Using multiple soloists, the piece engenders a magical sense of calm and a feeling for the numinous.

Andrew Nethsingha's excellent article in the CD booklet, makes is clear that the creation of the disc had great significance for him and the choir: 'Our journey of exploration of this music has been the most important and sastifying part of my musical career to date'. As a survey of Jonathan Harvey's sacred music this disc is valuable, and we can appreciate Jonathan Harvey's music sung by the sort of forces (men and boys) for which it was originally written, and sung by a choir clearly on peak form. But by some alchemy Andrew Nethsingha and the choir have given use something far more than that. These are performances to treasure, of great intensity and remarkable power. The disc was recorded over five days in July 2015, in itself a remarkable achievement.

Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) - I Love the Lord (1977)
Jonathan Harvey - Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1978)
Jonathan Harvey - Toccata for Organ and Tape (1980)
Jonathan Harvey - Come, Holy Ghost (1984)
Jonathan Harvey - Praise ye the Lord (1990)
Jonathan Harvey - Missa Brevis (1995)
Jonathan Harvey - The Royal Banners Forward Go (2004)
Jonathan Harvey - Laus Deo (1969)
Jonathan Harvey - The Annunciation (2011)
The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Edward Picton-Turbervill (organ)
Andrew Nethsingha (conductor)
Recorded in St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, 13-17 July 2015
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