I knew Jonathan Harvey mainly as a composer of instrumental music that combines avant-garde concerns like post-serialism and post-spectralism with an air of contemplation and spiritual awakening. Some of his choral output, recorded here by the Latvian Radio Choir, shows a somewhat more "accessible" side, but Harvey's spiritual vision, which combines Christianity with Buddhism, is even more prominent due to the overtly religious texts.
"Marahi" (1999) is a good example of Harvey's willingness to combine East and West, in spite of their apparent incompatibility, in order to mine them for what he thinks are universal truths. This "hymn to the divine feminine" uses both Marian antiphones from Christianity and texts from Buddhism, sung in Latin, Sanskrit and English. Harvey casts the music in three layers that each a express a different spiritual "realm": the angelic, human and animal. The latter will prove the most controversial to most listeners, I'm quite sure, as the singers are instructed to baa like sheep, moo like cows and grunt like pigs. I regret this decision, as it undermines what could have been a moving piece. Couldn't he have produced these sounds through live electronics instead of ridiculously having the singers do it? On this recording, the spoken parts are in English. There is a competing recording by Les Jeunes Solistes on a Soupir disc where the text is in French.
"The Angels" (1994) sets a poem by John V. Taylor, an Anglican clergyman who was a close friend of the composer. With its sense of calm and layering pentatonic cluster chords, this sounds like a fairly standard Christian choral work. This work has been recorded by the Les Jeunes Solistes on the aforementioned Soupir disc, as well as by the Joyful Company of Singers on ASV. On this Hyperion disc, the English-language text is less intelligible than the other recordings due to the immense reverb, but all are strong performances.
The other two pieces here are much more ambitious, as they run longer, have microtonal writing that only specialist choirs could handle, and bring in electronics. "The Summer Cloud's Awakening" (2001) combines the live choir with flute, cello and a rich electronic part in setting Buddhist scriptures with a line from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde". Halfway through the flute asserts itself, the vocal setting changes to Tibetan chant. The ending is a harmonic apotheosis representing enlightenment that is found in many pieces by this composer. With this particular scoring, comparisons to Luigi Nono's late music come to mind, and indeed Harvey's music has some of the same fury, but the effect is nonetheless quite different.
"Ashes Dance Back" for choir and electronics (1997) pulverises the musical discourse, reducing the text (selections from Rumi) to isolated phonemes and creating a micropolyphonic cloud of sound that is meant to envelope the listener. The electronic part contains sounds meant to evoke the four elements.
I think I would have liked the pieces with electronics a lot more if I could have heard them in live performance or on SACD. Harvey makes spatialization of the music -- the sounds of the piece rotating among speakers in the hall -- a big part of the musical drama, but all that fails to come across on this mere CD recording. Towards the end of "The Summer Cloud's Awakening", the reduction of multichannel sound to stereo creates a clipping effect strong enough to make one regret committing a whole half hour to the piece already.
In spite of the lack of multichannel SACD, Hyperion's sound quality is excellent as pure stereo, and the liner notes by Michael Downes are quite detailed. It seems a great deal of care has been expended on this release that, ultimately, may only appeal to Harvey completists.