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St John’s College Choir Cambridge launches a new series of recordings with Signum by exploring the close connections between the college and celebrated British composer Jonathan Harvey.
Harvey was later an undergraduate here at St John’s. Though he found Cambridge composition teaching at the time to be unduly conservative, he retained a great affection for the College itself throughout his life and was an Honorary Fellow here.
Harvey spoke of how liberating he found writing for a Cathedral-type choir, not to have to take a bow, simply to contribute to the worship which, in turn, helped him to forget about personal ambition. He also enjoyed writing for a Cathedral acoustic in which chords blurred into one another, and where he sometimes felt that the Cathedral itself were singing.
Of the chapel at Tenbury where he was a chorister, Harvey wrote: The silence of the building was haunting…Music came out of it, dissolved back into it. This is a fitting backdrop to the first work on the recording. I love the Lord (1977) takes a simple G major triad as its starting point, just as the String Quartet No 1 (also 1977) is based on the single note D.
With this anthem, written for Winchester Cathedral when his son was a chorister there, a new sound-world was opened up in liturgical music. The steadfastness and purity of the psalmist’s faith in God is challenged by so many tribulations; the constancy of the G major triad is stretched almost to breaking point by the rest of the choir as its harmony goes in and out of focus with the triad. The resulting bitonality and the psalmist’s words both express one of the most fundamental of all questions: if God exists, why does he allow all this suffering?
In performing this anthem I have chosen to place the group singing the triad at a considerable distance from the rest of the choir. In services and concerts we have found it effective to have this solo trio out of sight. A further semi-chorus group is employed in the middle of the work, close to the main choir.
The anthem was written in memory of the composer’s mother; the psalm was a text she often asked her son to read to her towards the end of her life. The composition may have played a part in the healing process after bereavement. In his book, Music and Inspiration, Harvey writes: Suffering encountered in art or ritual is healing. If we give ourselves to the experience of art, fully and fearlessly, we are journeying inward to our truth, from where we will find our new world. He later said that the theme of suffering and healing was his most common source of musical inspiration.
Settings of the Evening Canticles are central to the Anglican choral tradition. I regard Harvey’s kaleidoscopic Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1978) as one of the two most significant contributions to this genre in the past 50 years—a set of canticles for the age of space travel! This is one of five works on the disc all written for Martin Neary and his choirs. When Harvey came to hear us sing the work at St John’s he asked for a note to be changed to enable the use of our organ’s Trompeta Real.
The composer described the music to me in the following way: Magnificat paints Mary as a cosmic Mary, as a metaphysical Mary. Nunc dimittis, by contrast, is an extremely human image of an old man nearing death; the ‘t’s are expressive of brilliance and light. Magnificat is based on a cantus firmus, always the same series of notes, going round and round like a wheel. The wheel throws off sparks as it turns. It is like a nebula, a luminous or dark patch in the sky made by distant star-clusters, gas or dust. There is a rolling sense of the same idea moving on and on. The section He remembering his mercy has a sense of innocence, of childhood and of something timeless; the glissandi from speech to sung pitches are transitions between dreaming and wakefulness. The end of the Gloria, As it was in the beginning, has an urgency, a pleading quality regarding the future, a strong impulse to transform the cosmos.
Although the vocal techniques are less complex than those employed in some of his secular compositions, the work nevertheless requires much that is not used in mainstream Anglican composition—whispering, glissandi, aleatoric writing, shouting, pitched speech, percussive effects using repeated consonants. We Anglican musicians tend to be conservative in our use of choir and instruments. Most repertoire is for choir a capella or with organ. Yet the psalmist urges us to make use of the lute and harp, of the trumpet and the clashing of cymbals: Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. I feel sure that includes the techniques used here! Some contemporary music experts have considered Harvey’s church music to be of lesser importance than his instrumental works. I want to stress how imaginative, innovative and courageous Harvey was in pushing the boundaries of church music, without ever losing the intensity of spirituality which underpins all the great religious music from plainchant to Beethoven, from Byrd to Messiaen.
I choose to perform the Nunc dimittis in a rather theatrical, ritualistic way, of which the composer approved. I would never want any element of a service to seem like a concert, but I believe that use of space and movement can heighten a congregation’s sense of involvement. My interpretation is for Harvey’s Nunc dimittis to be a liturgical drama in which one starts with a darkened church and then gradually candles are lit for all members of the congregation—a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel. When the trebles, altos and tenors initiate dramatic crescendos on the word light, they walk out of the choir stalls and spread out around the chapel; I hope you can hear this effect captured in the recording. The bass soloist is joined by four other basses in unison, standing centrally in an imposing row as the music builds to the blinding vision of the organ entering at full volume on all twelve pitch classes: the old man, Simeon, comes face to face with the Messiah in this supreme moment of revelation, before the organ chord begins to dissolve and Simeon’s soul gradually leaves his body as he departs in peace.
Harvey was amongst the composers who led the way in the field of electro-acoustic music. In Toccata (1980) for organ and pre-recorded tape, written in the same year as Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, the composer asked for the sound source to be placed very close to the organ pipes. It is an exciting piece to hear live, as the organist interacts with the pre-recorded sounds. Toccata was often played around the world by John Scott, the illustrious former St John’s organ student, and indeed it featured in the last recital he gave here in the college. Scott’s untimely death occurred three weeks after the present CD was recorded.
Come, Holy Ghost (1984) is a work in five main sections, essentially a theme with variations. The text is associated with the Feast of Pentecost. The scene is described in Acts of the Apostles:
And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Harvey depicts this event in an extraordinarily vivid way. First the ancient plainsong theme, Veni Creator Spiritus, is heard sung by a soloist with other singers acting like a piano’s sustaining pedal. In variation 1 canonic writing appears against a chordal backdrop with fragments of treble melody floating weightlessly. In variation 2 the tenor soloist sings a version of the melody which becomes increasingly distorted; like Jesus’s disciples he begins in a language one understands but gradually mutates into another tongue. Below all this the second basses are given the first 2 ½ phrases of the true theme ppp. In variation 3 there are more slow moving chords for the lower voices, while the boys start to sing melodic fragments in free time. If you listen incredibly carefully you might be able to hear the final 1 ½ phrases of the theme in the second tenor part, but they are not marked to be sung any louder than anything else. When the disciples were speaking in so many different languages simultaneously it must have been hard to pick out any individual one clearly. During this section I asked the trebles to spread out into different parts of the Chapel, like the Holy Spirit filling the entire house.
Mystical glissandi lead us into variation 4. Now the lower voices have aleatoric writing, with segments of melody to be sung in free time and in an order of the singer’s own choosing. This is a perfect musical representation of Glossolalia. It reminds me of the magical way in which Salman Rushdie conjures up the sense of varied wafting aromas in the opening section of Midnight’s Children. Harvey seems to fill the building with incense, a traditional means of symbolizing the ascent of prayers to the Almighty. The rushing wind emerges in the distance, overwhelms us, and then dissipates before the humble, prayerful doxology. The whole choir ends softly in unison, emphasizing the unity of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The simplicity and purity of the beginning and end of the work, contrasting with much complexity, are hallmarks of Harvey’s liturgical music.
Although Harvey questioned Christianity and had a period of atheism in his teens, the potential for mystical experience never left…Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism changed my life. He bought this as a student. In the late 1970s Harvey started practising Vedic meditation twice daily; he never lapsed for more than a day or two. The deeper state of consciousness thus attained seems to permeate his music. From then on he became more and more interested in Buddhism, Hinduism and other eastern religions. It was not a case of choosing one religion or another: There is no question of eliminating earlier spiritual selves, only of incorporating them. In From Silence (1988) Harvey combined Benedictine texts with other texts of his own with Buddhist undertones; this met with a strongly positive response from the audience. Since then I have always believed in the underlying sense of the sacred present in all human beings.
Praise ye the Lord (1990) sets Psalm 148, one of the most pictorial sections of the Psalter. Harvey had used the same text in Lauds (for two choirs and cello) just three years earlier. The colouristic organ writing shows the influence of Messiaen. The anthem is an exuberant paean of joy, painted in the brightest colours, though even here the composer falls to his knees at the end, in awe at the wonder of Creation.
Missa brevis (1995) was composed for the Choir of Westminster Abbey in the tercentenary year of the Abbey’s former Organist, Henry Purcell. In his modern idiom Harvey takes up the mantle of Purcell’s often tortured chromaticism. Kyrie is densely chromatic music with a very clear tonal centre. As in Agnus Dei, there are two trios—of upper and lower voices; one group sings quasi-canonically while the other group sighs pitifully in glissandi. The pleading for mercy becomes more urgent and intense until an angel descends in the form of a solo treble to grant absolution and reconciliation, another example of healing in Harvey’s music.
Gloria opens with a declamatory pentatonic chord. This is later rearranged into piles of fourths or fifths and eventually melts into the final chord of Agnus Dei. At Gratias agimus speech again joins the palette of vocal colours—the two halves of the choir jostle with one another as they compete to give thanks to God. The penitential central section of Gloria shares material with the two outer movements of the Mass.
In Sanctus the extremes of heaven and earth are represented by the tritone between A major and E flat major—the most distant possible keys. In the awesome opening three words we hear the great space between heaven and earth open up. The lower triad pulls away towards E flat from the upper triad of A major; three against three; Holy, Holy, Holy. Numerology is important in the Sanctus; think of Bach’s three trumpets and three oboes plus six part choir at that point in the Mass in B minor. The prophet Isaiah depicts the throne of God surrounded by six-winged attendant Seraphim. Harvey starts with a six part chord and eventually Heaven and Earth are full of God’s glory, represented here by all 12 available pitch classes.
The music suggests that here on earth the tonal centre is A (as in Kyrie), and in heaven the tonal centre is E flat; so Benedictus moves from E flat to A major, as Christ enters Jerusalem having come from heaven in the name of the Lord. The two settings of Osanna are mirror images as heaven and earth reach towards one another. In the same passage from which the words of Sanctus are drawn, Isaiah describes the Seraphim calling ceaselessly to one another; Harvey paints this image at Dominus Deus Sabaoth. The prophet goes on: And, as each one called, the threshold shook to its foundations, while the house was filled with smoke. The apocalyptic setting of Osanna portrays this. In the context of a Solemn mass, the awestruck silences are indeed filled with smoke, both literally and metaphorically. Isaiah writes I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the skirt of his robe filled the temple. Harvey’s vision of the Lord on his throne is no Handelian trumpets and drums affair, but rather he seems to share the approach of his fellow Worcestershire composer, Elgar. Harvey had been ‘fanatical’ about The Dream of Gerontius when he was a chorister. At the moment when the soul sees God, Elgar asks that each instrument exert its fullest force for one moment only. Not many composers dare to challenge worshippers in this way, but religion should not all be easy and comfortable.
Agnus Dei reuses material from Kyrie when pleading for mercy, and reinforces the previous tonal centre of A. Harvey reminds us that the Lamb of God is also the only-begotten Son of God, by reutilising exactly the same chord from Gloria (at Domine fili unigenite.) Suddenly the intensity builds at the third appearance of the opening words, as a menacing E flat enters the hitherto untroubled waters of a white-note chord. This in turn sets up a reprise of the struggle between A major and E flat major, as we on earth plead with the Lamb of God in heaven to grant us peace.
The Royal banners forward go (2004) was written for St John’s College Choir under David Hill’s direction. Harvey had set the same text 24 years earlier as part of his Church Opera, Passion and Resurrection. Fortunatus’s Latin hymn Vexilla Regis was first sung in the 6th century when a relic of the True Cross was carried in procession from Tours to Poitiers. One hears in the first three stanzas the sense of a slow, solemn procession with heads bowed low. O Tree of glory is the only stanza in the second person and we vividly glimpse the bright glory of the Cross. In the final stanza, as we gaze up at the crucified Christ, a treble soloist hangs timelessly above us.
The works on this recording are arranged in order of composition, with the exception of the solo organ work, Laus Deo (1969), which is in fact the earliest work on the disc. It dates from the same year as Ludus Amoris, written for Christopher Robinson, who had been a chorister with Harvey in Tenbury, a work described by one critic as the most striking premiere at the Three Choirs Festival for nearly 50 years. Harvey gave the following description of the extraordinary creation of Laus Deo: Having given up all hope of finding time to fulfil a commission from Simon Preston before the deadline, I had one night a vivid dream in which a shimmering ‘cinquecento’ angel played an organ. What he played formed the main substance of Laus Deo, and within twelve hours of wakening the piece was finished. In describing a similar experience Gustav Mahler had whilst composing his Seventh Symphony, Harvey wrote: The way in which the principal material emerged and the speed with which it was eventually completed suggest that it was in some sense already fully formed in the unconscious: the epiphanaic moment was one of revelation rather than invention.
In terms of those who influenced him and those he most admired, Harvey was as much a European composer as a purely British one. His major work exploring world religions, Weltethos, was premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker in the Philharmonie in 2011. One of the innovative features of that great concert hall is the way it places the musicians at the centre of the listeners, and breaks down the impersonal nature of ‘them and us’ in a traditional concert hall. I have tried to engender something of that sense of personal connection to the performers in the movement of singers during the music on this recording. The shape of our Chapel is conducive to this. In Music and Inspiration, Harvey quoted his contemporary, Iannis Xenakis: Music can surround us in the same way as the sounds of nature surround us in the forest or at sea. The practice generally observed at concerts, of music coming from one source, is merely one possibility of many. In transferring this idea to a religious context, one might add that God is all around us.
Harvey’s numinous work, The Annunciation (2011), was written as part of the Quincentenary celebrations of St John’s College. Each day we rehearsed The Annunciation and I e-mailed a sound recording to the composer and then we spoke on the phone. It was an intensely moving dialogue. Harvey explained how he could no longer hold a pencil or play the piano and that he thought these notes would be the last he would ever compose. Mercifully a little more music followed. I later read the following words of the composer: Pain and suffering experienced in life increase the artist’s determination to create an ideal world through his music. A year further on The Annunciation, which seems to inhabit an ideal world, was nominated for a British Composer Award. The day after the awards ceremony the composer passed away after his long experience of Motor Neurone Disease. We sang this work at his memorial service.
Harvey once quoted Debussy’s explanation of how he had written La Mer when away from the sea: But I have an endless store of memories; to my mind, this is worth more than reality. At the end of his life Harvey continued to turn back to previous sources of inspiration. He had set Edwin Muir’s poem, The Annunciation, quite differently over 40 years earlier. The passage that it makes each feather tremble on his wings makes musical reference to Harvey’s Messages, an ecstatic work which sets only angel names in their nine hierarchies. The Annunciation takes Palestrina’s Stabat Mater as its starting point, Harvey having previously elaborated the same work in music for choir and live electronics in 2004.
The composer described an aspect of his student days thus: every evening I would spend maybe an hour in the darkened Catholic church in Cambridge gazing at the sanctuary light, quite still. It was the church Rosa and I were married in. I am deeply moved that the final stanza of what he believed would be his last work should set the following words:
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
Harvey cited Domenico Veneziano’s The Annunciation, in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, as a model for the work. As far as I know this fact is not written down anywhere; perhaps no one would know if he had not told me. This is the hidden inspiration for the work. Harvey wrote: Inspiration is the hidden cause: it may be almost impossible for the listener to pinpoint its presence in the finished work, yet without it the work would not have the individuality for which, presumably, we admire it.
I take it that the composer had got to know this painting during his student days. A composer looks back at the end of his life; the young Mary, just before the start of Jesus’s earthly life, has premonitions of her later sorrow at the foot of the Cross—a strange, sad memory of the Stabat Mater as the composer put it to me. Time moves forwards and backwards in a profound depiction of eternity. This mirror effect can be heard in the music just as it can be seen in Veneziano’s painting. The interplay between angel and virgin is captured in the music to exquisite effect, as solo voices pass the melody between them against a background halo of humming. The composer spoke of a meeting of the supernatural and natural worlds; the work begins with very soft sounds as though hearing voices from outside the building. The poem is about the timeless—a poised rapturous state. Within that are of course emotions, but the spell must not be completely broken. I think of The Annunciation as representing a distillation of the composer’s musical essence—it has a purity and simplicity of means whilst still seeming new.
Edwin Muir writes: Earth was the only meeting place. One thinks of various meeting places in Harvey’s works: between old and new; between live performers and electronics; between different groups of voices; between faith and doubt in I love the Lord; between different faiths; between the sound of the musicians and the sound of the building. It is hard to hear where one begins and another ends.
Harvey wrote: Much of the fascination of the composer lies in the way inspiration is produced from the encounter between the artist and the world. One can never know for sure how composers’ music will be regarded in later centuries, but it is my firm belief that the deepening trance of Jonathan Harvey’s music will never break. Our journey of exploration of this music has been the most important and satisfying part of my musical career to date. We humbly dedicate this recording to Jonathan’s memory and also to his wife Rosa and their children Anna and Dominic. I end with the composer’s own words:
I have the feeling there’s some new type of music hovering on the horizon, which I can glimpse very fleetingly now and then, and which does seem like a change of consciousness.
Andrew Nethsingha © 2015