J Harvey: The Angel

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: J Harvey: The Angels; Ashes Dance Back; Marahi; The Summer Cloud’s Awakening
PERFORMER: Jonathan Harvey, Carl Faia (electronics), Clive Williamson (synthesizer), Ilona Meija (flute), Arne Deforce (cello); Latvian Radio Choir/Kaspars Putnins, James Wood

Fine as are the two shorter, unaccompanied pieces on this disc of Jonathan Harvey’s choral music, it’s the longer settings pairing voices and electronics which really grip the attention. In Ashes Dance Back, a Persian mystic text imagining death as ecstasy, it’s hard to tell where live performance ends and electronic elements start, as ‘real-time’ contributions from the choir blend and interweave with electronic ‘treatments’ of these sounds and a pre-recorded CD soundtrack. The effect, illustrating the dissolution and re-integration of the expiring self into the primal elements of nature, is other-worldly and riveting.
A similar elision of real-time and synthesised or pre-prepared elements informs the 30-minute The Summer Cloud’s Awakening, which explores the Buddhistic notion of the ‘end of craving’, using a line from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as a starting-point. This is weird and wonderful music: listening, I thought repeatedly of the parallels between the effects and images Harvey was creating and the intensely alluring dreamscapes of Finnegans Wake. I wonder, has Harvey ever considered an extended Joyce setting? 
It’s notoriously difficult to judge new music objectively, but to my ears both Ashes and Awakening are visionary pieces, and have the makings of modern masterpieces. They require, and will undoubtedly repay, repeated listening. A magnificent disc, superbly performed and recorded, and a magnificent argument for the ongoing, cutting-edge relevance of contemporary classical music. Terry Blain