Classical music: A spiritual vision devoid of lightness

MY MOST recent encounter with the British composer Jonathon Harvey was at a lecture last year in the Music Department of Harvard University. Harvey had come to talk about his latest work. The language was baffling. I consoled myself in the knowledge that a PhD in higher mathematics was not necessary to understand his music. After all, there's no mistaking the humanity or the spiritual message in a work such as Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. But something has changed.

In three pieces performed by Sinfonia 21 last Saturday as a tribute to Harvey on his 60th birthday, the listening was an endurance test. This may sound harsh; of the three works, two were new to London, Scena, written in 1992, and Hidden Voice II, which received its premiere alongside its companion Hidden Voice, which was commissioned by the Sinfonia in 1997. In these days of "dumbing down" it is with trepidation that one dares to question the notion of "approachability" but a programme note gives Harvey's game away: "Not for him the wishy-washy simplicity of New Age spiritualism or the glacial stasis of the holy minimalists" (for those not in the know, this is a coded attack on Arvo Part, Gavin Bryars and John Tavener). It continues: "It is difficult to think of any other contemporary composer as committed to the depiction of the otherworldly and the numinous using the full panoply of avant-garde resources." Too bad that these "avant- garde resources" produce a language so dissonant, so fragmentary, so fractious and so devoid of lightness. Harvey certainly tosses down a veritable gauntlet. Martyn Brabbins, a conductor of uncommon intelligence and musicianship, appeared undaunted, guiding and coaxing his gifted players through thickets, while Elizabeth Layton brought moments of blessed lyricism as the soloist in the knotty Scena, a masquerading violin concerto.

These three works provided a cold heart to an otherwise elegantly constructed programme displaying English warmth and pastoralism in Elgar's Serenade for Strings and Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli alongside the Corelli Concerto Grosso from which Tippett's theme is taken.

A residency at Imperial College, where the concert took place in the surprisingly grateful acoustic of the Great Hall, has allowed the ever enterprising Sinfonia 21 to link up with other educational establishments, most notably the Royal College of Art. A current collaboration with the RCA film department brought flickering images as a backdrop to some of the music. But washed-out black-and-white film of walking figures, or of a female dancer, added little to Corelli or Elgar. Images to Harvey's music were, alas, not attempted.

Sinfonia 21 is to be congratulated in attempting explorations of this territory, even if the results are worryingly insubstantial. If music is to be "approachable", it's unlikely that special visuals will help much.