Weltethos: CBSO and choruses, West, Seal, Gardner, Royal Festival Hall, London

 

Driven by religion plus a fascination with digitally-engineered sound, Jonathan Harvey has carved a most individual niche in contemporary music. His religion is of the mystical variety, drawing less on the Anglicanism of his youth than on the Buddhism he later embraced, finding expression in a series of ecstatic works.

And it was one of these - "Mortuos plango, vivos voco"- which turned an otherwise leaden Prom this year into a transcendental experience. He had recorded the largest bell of Winchester cathedral, and also his chorister son: putting their sounds through a computer, he turned the Albert Hall into an intimate, sacred space.

His choral epic Weltethos - ‘world ethos’ - is emphatically something else. It takes its name from the foundation set up by the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng to promulgate his theory that the world can only be saved through an amalgam of its great religions.

Over the years Küng - a one-time friend of Pope Ratzinger - has amassed political brownie-points by challenging Papal infallibility, and more recently by arguing that the Vatican’s modus operandi closely resembles that of the Kremlin.

As a librettist, however, he must be judged by different standards, and it was significant that in a pre-performance speech the chorus master stressed that "it didn’t matter if people didn’t catch all the words". In the event we caught relatively few, but those were more than enough: there’s a limit to the number of permutations of ‘peace and love’ one can tolerate, particularly when they are put into the mouths of children as they cloyingly were here.

There were moments when Harvey’s crystalline touch with strings and Oriental percussion led to marvellous effects, but most of the time he stifled his natural voice with massive walls of choral and orchestral sound from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra plus four choruses (requiring two conductors in Michael Seal and Edward Gardner).

But the bludgeoning sanctimoniousness of Küng’s message was the real killer. Samuel West’s role as Speaker was to highlight recurring moral precepts but, given the horrors now being unleashed around the world in the name of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, those precepts rang desperately hollow. It’s generally the kiss of death to build a show round a message, and this was a very big kiss.

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