Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos Reaches London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jonathan Harvey: Samuel West (speaker), CBSO Chorus, London Voices, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Michael Seal (conductor), Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.10.2012 (CG)

Jonathan HarveyWeltethos

Humanity (Confucianism)
Golden Rule (Judaism)
Non-violence (Hinduism)
Justice (Islam)
Truth (Buddhism)
Partnership (Christianity)

Weltethos was first performed in October 2011 by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and has already been performed by tonight’s forces in Symphony Hall, Birmingham as part of the opening of the 2012 Olympics. That performance, on 21 June, was fully reported by my colleague, John Quinn and there is thus no need for a detailed explanation of the background to the work here. In brief, Weltethos sets a text by the theologian Hans Küng, which seeks to draw together the common threads of the major religions, the central theme being that they have far more in common than not. There are six sections, each roughly 15 minutes in length, and the work thus plays for nearly 90 minutes. This makes it Harvey’s most ambitious work to date.

Given Harvey’s keenness for mystical and religious subjects, it is not difficult to see that the subject matter would appeal to him. And the result is a work which is frequently inspired and periodically extraordinarily beautiful. The forces are large, and include eight percussionists spread out behind the orchestra with just about every instrument imaginable. For the most part, 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, and the children’s choir completes each of the six sections except the last, the idea being that the children represent the future while the main choir represents the present and past.

But there are problems. It was explained before the concert that there was no printed text as such, but a précis of the main ideas. This was because Harvey has dismembered the words, often breaking them down into syllables. Consequently it was quite impossible to hear words sung by the chorus, and this had a distancing effect for me. The texts given to Samuel West to speak were of course plainly audible and superbly delivered but quite desperately pedantic. And the texts given to the children are also decidedly wooden; “Children have a future – if we give up hatred and violence;” Really? You don’t say!

In the end, the pretentiousness of the fundamental idea proved too much to take, which is a dreadful shame because so much of the music is masterly. On one level “why do we fight when all religions have so much in common?” has obvious appeal, and on another, it is merely a superficial statement of breathtaking naivety. Leaving all that aside, I would happily sit through another performance simply to revel in the orchestral and choral ideas: 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.

The performance was terrific, from choirs and orchestra. I don’t suppose anyone could fault a thing. And make no mistake, this is a difficult work to perform; it’s complex stuff, demanding enormous precision from all concerned. The principal conductor, Edward Gardner, the sub-conductor Michael Seal, and Simon Halsey, who trained the choirs, are to be warmly congratulated, together with the marvellous CBSO and the fabulous choirs.

Christopher Gunning