At the London premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s visionary work Weltethos (‘world ethics’) on 7 October, the ranked masses of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus – as well as narrator Sam West and conductors Edward Gardner and Michael Seal – filled the Royal Festival Hall with Harvey’s awe-inspiring, beautiful music.
The epic work was a commission from the theologian Hans Küng for the Berlin Philharmonic, and explores the shared spiritual heritage of humanity through texts from six of the world’s great religions: Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The piece could not have had a more glowing start: it was premiered in October 2011 by the Berlin Philharmonic/Berlin Radio Choir and Sir Simon Rattle, and received its UK premiere in June with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Chorus and Edward Gardner.
The main London performance was preceded by a chamber concert conceived as ‘as a meditation on Jonathan Harvey's greatest intimate and electro-acoustic chamber works.’ Audiences revelled in the extraordinarily varied sounds of Cirrus Light (UK premiere), Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco and String Quartet No. 4
‘…frequently inspired …extraordinarily beautiful...’
‘a crowning achievement of one of our great elder-statesman composers’
‘Whispered, shouted, chanted and yes, occasionally sung… the writing for adult chorus and orchestra is as astonishingly rich and challenging as anything Harvey has produced… Weltethos (“World Ethos”) is a generous, serious contemplation of the universality of faith
We start in the eerie sparkling sound-world of electronica, but all noises here (for once) are natural. High string harmonics and gongs glisten in a sudden creation-flash of light, before marimbas and unturned percussion signal the rustling, stirring beginnings of life. A trickle of hand-bells introduces the opening Confucius section, and indiscernible chorus whisperings and muttering gradually grown into sung text. Binding it all together is the narration, delivered here by Samuel West. With each movement mirroring this organic initial structure, the ritual aspect of proceedings is always present. Yet within the strophic repetitions new colours emerge. Hollow sounds – muted brass, unturned percussion, pizzicato strings – gives way increasingly to more sustained and brilliant textures.
At around 90 continuous minutes, the work grows and breathes in a single gesture, growing ever more determinedly to a blazing C major conclusion… It’s a work that deserves to be heard again (and again), and one that – budget allowing and text notwithstanding – deserves to make it into the repertoire. Weltethos is a crowning achievement of one of our great elder-statesman composers.’
The Arts Desk (Alexandra Coghlan), 8 October 2012
‘Driven by religion plus a fascination with digitally-engineered sound, Jonathan Harvey has carved a most individual niche in contemporary music… Harvey’s crystalline touch with strings and Oriental percussion led to marvellous effects…’
The Independent (Michael Church), 8 October 2012
‘…frequently inspired …extraordinarily beautiful... The forces are large, and include eight percussionists spread out behind the orchestra with just about every instrument imaginable… Harvey uses his orchestra sensitively, using instrumental colours imaginatively, although there are passages of considerable force in the music too. Harvey’s ear is acute, and there are constantly well-judged textures and effects to marvel at. The orchestral influences are many and varied. Western contemporary music, of course, mingled with sounds reminiscent of the Middle and Far East, but electronics, present in many of Harvey’s works, are absent. Nevertheless some “electronic thinking” spills over in his use of eerie clusters and the way he uses the organ. The choral writing is impressive. The choir is called upon not only to sing, but to whisper, shout, and produce other non-standard sounds…
[There is also] the clever use of a single-note repeated quaver pattern starting on a single oboe and migrating around the orchestra; the sudden explosion of the choir in the second movement; the Messiaen-like textures of the third movement, with its big orchestral climax and moans from the choir; the multiple glissandi in the fourth movement; the soft organ clusters in the fifth; and the almighty climax in the sixth, dissonant yet glorious.’
Seen and Heard (Christopher Gunning), 9 October 2012