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Harvey: Bird Concerto With Pianosong / Nagano, Atherton, London Sinfonietta

Harvey / Nagano / London Sinfonietta / Atherton
Release Date: 01/31/2012 
Label:  Nmc   Catalog #: 177   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Jonathan Harvey
Performer:  Hidéki NaganoPaul ArchibaldGareth HulseTimothy Gill
Conductor:  David Atherton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HARVEY Bird Concerto with Pianosong 1. Ricercare una melodia 2. Other Presences 3 1 David Atherton, cond; 1 Hidéki Nagano (pn); 2 Gareth Hulse (ob); 2 Tim Gill (vc); 3 Paul Archibald (tpt); Read more Sound Intermedia (electronics); 1 London Sinfonietta NMC 177 (54:O5) 1 Live: Warsaw 9/19/2009

British composer Jonathan Harvey has gathered a significant following during the more than 40 years that he has been composing. He has managed to impress both the avant-garde—including Pierre Boulez, who invited him to work for a time at IRCAM in the early 1980s—and the less specialist audience members who are drawn in by the unexpected accessibility of his often formidably complex scores. This dualism—the technical density and the human appeal—are very much apparent in this release of music written for soloists and electronics. Also apparent, for those familiar with their work, is the influence of the two great French spectralists, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. In the chords made of partials of a given sound—a bell in the case of his famous Mortuos plango, vivos voco (1980)—he found the key to creating music in a “new grammar based on nature.” The results, while they can seem unfamiliar at first, never seem contrived or esoteric. Indeed, they are often hauntingly beautiful, and at times resplendent.

Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001–03)—not at all tongue-in-check, despite the clever title—is in fact a very serious exploration of the songs of birds. In this case there are 40 different birdsongs, collected in California. Using these, and a solo piano, and a sampler/synthesizer, he manipulates the sounds into a 30-minute musical canvas of great emotional diversity. It ranges from calmly reflective to almost overwhelmingly wild, and then back again to tranquility. While the development of the work through this expressive arch is fascinating in itself, the real genius of the work is the layering of the representations of the birdsong: the concrete representation through unembellished samplings, the representation of the songs on the piano in an apparent homage to Messiaen, and the electronic manipulation of the songs and their spectral harmonic implications into sounds both recognizably organic and yet equally clearly man-made. Written on a commission by Joanna McGregor, the work requires the soloist to play both the piano and the synthesizer, a virtuoso feat that soloist Hidéki Nagano, pianist since 1995 for the Ensemble Intercontemporain, handles with great sensitivity and skill. David Atherton, an old hand at making contemporary scores come to life, leads 17 soloists from the London ensemble he co-founded in 1968. It is brilliant.

The remainder of the program presents works by Harvey written for a solo instrument and interactive electronics. The earliest of these experiments, Ricercare una melodia (1984), was written for trumpet and tape delay. By recording the soloist on four tracks with different delays—initially multiples of 2.5 seconds—one player creates the fugal effect. By manipulating the timing of the solo line and of the delay itself, a wide variety of striking and quite musically satisfying effects are produced. In 1987, Harvey revisited the work, revising it for solo oboe, played here with wit and flair—and remarkable concentration since this is recorded in real time—by Gareth Hulse, principal oboist of the London Sinfonietta. Frances-Marie Uitti, American-born cellist and composer, adapted the work for cello in 2004, and that version is brilliantly performed here by London Sinfonietta principal Tim Gill. The effect is intriguingly different. Finally, the ensemble’s trumpet principal, Paul Archibald, provides the solo line in Other Presences (2006), an evolution of the echo manipulation techniques of the ricercares. Here the soloist controls the recording and playback of 26 different extracts of the live performance, manipulating them in real time through loops and a harmonizer. The resulting 11-minute work is exhilaratingly brash and concentrated at times, and chillingly evocative at others. In all three performances, the live electronics were designed and programmed by Sound Intermedia, with digital techniques replacing the tape delays of the earlier works.

The recording is as dazzlingly executed as the music and the performances. Fans of electroacoustic music, and/or the powerful scores of the spectralists, should not hesitate. More traditional collectors with a little sense of adventure should give this a listen, as well.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


It seems disingenuous to call Jonathan Harvey one of Britain’s greatest composers, given his apparently greater affinity with recent developments in French music. Messiaen and his Spectralist successors between them make up the cultural context for this disc. Yet the way those influences are combined is distinctively Harvey.

Bird Concerto with Pianosong, while it isn't described as such, is clearly a homage to Messiaen. The work uses recorded birdsong, which is combined with the piano and orchestra. As in Speakings, Mortuos Plango, and many other of Harvey's works, the idea here is gradually to connect the timbral and conceptual space between the two kinds of sound. Like Messiaen, Harvey must slow down and lower the pitch of much of the birdsong to bring it into the range of the instruments. The percussion section acts as a bridge between the two sound-worlds, and friction drums are used effectively to ground the otherwise flighty textures. The solo piano part often resembles Messiaen's birdsong works, but the textures are lighter. In fact the textures throughout the piece, in the electronics, the orchestra and the piano are considerably more approachable than in Messiaen. Harvey occasionally opts for percussive or jagged textures, but they usually relent sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the meditative moods that the work often lapses into owe much to the Spectralists, particularly Grisey, and also presumably to the composer's Buddhist faith as well.

The other two works on the disc - Ricercare is presented twice in versions for oboe and cello - both work on the more straightforward premise of a solo instrument with live electronic manipulation. One remarkable feature of Harvey's use of electronics is his ability never to be defined by the state of the technology. Ricercare dates from 1984, while Other Presences was written in 2006. But both sound fresh and new. There is no sense here of experimentation, rather Harvey shows complete mastery of his means. Both works involve real time manipulation of the solo instrument's sounds. The idea is to invoke other, virtual instruments with related but clearly different sounds. So the range of the instrument is extended through the electronics, most effectively in the oboe version of Ricercare, where a deep bass oboe or bassoon sound comes through as an accompanying voice. Harvey's Buddhist faith is again invoked in Other Presences, when the trumpet sound is manipulated and lowered to resemble the dungchen, the long straight trumpet of Tibetan ritual.

The performances, sound manipulation and recording are all to the highest standard. One disadvantage of an audio recording is that you can't see where or what each sound is emerging from. In fairness, that is often the case with live performances of Harvey's music as well, and as the composer is clearly intent on blurring the boundaries, perhaps it isn't relevant.

Pianist Hideki Nagano is the ideal soloist for the concerto. His touch is precise, yet he always gives the impression that he is exploring the textures and contrasts as much as the composer. The players in the solo works are equally competent, but should share equal honours with the Sound Intermedia team, who do an excellent job of realising Harvey's terrifyingly ambitious electro-acoustic ambitions.

-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Bird Concerto with Pianosong by Jonathan Harvey
Performer:  Hidéki Nagano (Piano)
Conductor:  David Atherton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Other Presences by Jonathan Harvey
Performer:  Paul Archibald (Trumpet)
Ricercare una melodia by Jonathan Harvey
Performer:  Gareth Hulse (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; England 
Ricercare una melodia by Jonathan Harvey
Performer:  Timothy Gill (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; England 

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