Jonathan Harvey: Works for piano; Works for flute and piano

Florian Hoelscher, piano; Pirmin Grehl, flute (Neos 10828)

27 July 2009 4 stars

HarveyOne might think Jonathan Harvey's age and stature would see him well represented in terms of CD releases. This is surprisingly not the case, however: there are relatively few recordings available of his major works, with some of those that were previously released having been deleted.

This release on Neos, then, of Harvey's music for piano and flute and piano, is a welcome one. Following upon the excellent Aeon disc from earlier this year of Harvey's string quartets, it suggests a renewed focus on the English composer's works, and an acknowledgment of his achievements to date.

The works presented here go back to Four Images After Yeats, written in 1969 while Harvey was still a student of Milton Babbit, and up to as recent as Tombeau de Messiaen from 2004 (which had a performance at the Proms last year). The listener in this manner is given a good overview of Harvey's style, from the early serialist influence to the later trademark masterful integration of electronics with acoustic instruments. Common to all the works is an impulse towards the lyrical accompanied by an expert sense of phrase.

The first two works are for flute and piano. Nataraja, from 1983, opens the disc in sprightly fashion. Lyrical passages on flute alternate with darting and rough-edged dual lines, building a dramatic interaction before some homophony calms the music down. Some passages, with repeated oblique motifs building up, bring to mind Messiaen's birdsong. These passages of calm establish themselves out of the tumult that precedes them, before then sinking back into that tumult again. In this way a playful mood is mixed with an ominous darker tone, a dualism that charts the eponymous god's dance of necessary creation and inevitable destruction.

Run Before Lightning is not so directly spiritual as the preceding work but captures the dramatic scenario of the title. The proximity of the flute to the breath of life for Harvey always suggests the human voice. The writing for flute and piano is again outstanding in the balance it displays, each instrument enwrapped in the other while still given plenty of space, the counterpoint well developed and clear to follow throughout. Time is stretched and cut, dealt with as subject to the trail taken by the music. Such warping of time suggests the formative influence of Stockhausen on Harvey's compositional approach; and nonetheless, the phrasing always has flow and sounds natural.

Tombeau de Messiaen pits solo piano alongside a ghostly electronic piano double on tape. This second, absent piano is modulated digitally into microtonal areas inaccessible to its live partner, by way of an augmentation of the series of overtones. Polyphony of equal-tempered lines with microtonal ones disorientates and decentres the sound-world of the work, the live and the digital swimming in and out of each other. The mood, appropriate to the subject matter, is more subdued here than in the previous two works. Large chords, linked by a meek and plodding high register melodic line, gradually lead to the work's denouement in scattershot, bell-like harmonies, speeding up until halted by a tombstone-like final cut-off on the live piano, the spectral twin having dissipated into the aether.

The following four works are brief, each under three minutes and each of incidental character. The cumulative effect, though, creates a good balance for the disc as a whole. Vers alternates two contrasting musical ideas before splicing them together. ff, as the title indicates, is loud, experimenting with a quasi-modal melody in the left hand accompanied by clusters in a very high register in the right, acting somewhat as overtones to the lower notes (something also found in Messiaen's work). Homage to Cage, à Chopin (und Ligeti ist auch dabei) sees a breakneck, motoric line pulsating around the breadth of the prepared piano, like blood around a circulatory system, with an electronic accompaniment completing the playful manner suggested by the title. Blink and you'll miss Haiku: a seventeen-note scale, played rapidly, lingers on as a chord; and that's the piece, all nineteen seconds of it.

Closing the disc is Four Images After Yeats. This was Harvey's first work for solo piano, and one in which the Irish poet's occult concerns cross over with Harvey's own. The sound landscape here is pointillist, influenced by the post-serial context. The first piece has an almost lilting melody accompanied by sporadic, ametric figurations around the upper register. This and the following two movements are brief, with the final movement, 'Purgatory', much longer and holding most of the work's weight. Quotations from composers past – Mozart, Bach, Liszt, Scriabin – drift in and out of a heavy, brooding atonal atmosphere, creating an unsettling and tense feeling. It is a feeling perhaps delirious in effect, as the previous literature of the instrument reels by in chronological order. This ritual of music tradition makes a good close to the disc.

This release recommended to anyone with an interest in Harvey's music or contemporary British music in general. It boasts fine performances by Florian Hoelscher on piano and Pirmin Grehl on flute, injecting the tough scores with quickness.

By Liam Cagney