Jonathan Harvey, Tramway, Glasgow

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The Independent Culture

In the citadel of modernism, Jonathan Harvey is one of the most distinguished British figures.

In the citadel of modernism, Jonathan Harvey is one of the most distinguished British figures. He has recently been appointed Composer in Association to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It is significant that, when other Scottish orchestras flirt with postmodernists (RSNO with Michael Torke, SCO with James MacMillan), the BBC goes for the good old genuine article.

In an interview that formed part of this recorded concert, he spoke of BBC SSO's credentials as "one of the leading contemporary-music ensembles in the world". He invokes, presumably, a comparison with outfits such as Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. The difference is, the BBC players also give cycles of symphonies by Beethoven and Nielsen to rave reviews. It's hard to imagine Boulez's players attempting this.

But this orchestra has always loved adventure. Their young chief conductors - at present, the Russian Ilan Volkov - have encouraged it. However, if you think of modernism as an aggressive, rebellious attempt to épater les bourgeois, then Harvey is its most gentle exponent. His dreamy spirituality, laced with Buddhist quietism, gives his music a meditative stillness. This was particularly true of his Cello Concerto, played by Arne Deforce. The cellist is "borne in a chariot on a cushion of high sounds", the composer says, through a landscape of temple bells and rippling water. Even when the musical ideas are led into development, you feel nothing is changing. It is a motionless image of a concert, shimmering on a silk screen.

There were two other Harvey pieces in this "portrait". Wheel of Emptiness, for a smaller group, dates from 1997. It shows even more clearly the static moments, which shift into development as a flower blossoms, without any feeling of forward movement. The opening piece, Ricercare una Melodia for solo trumpet, played by Mark O'Keeffe, mixed the trumpet with delayed and altered forms of itself, including low tones on the verge of subsonic. A fanfare this was not. All suggestions of the military had disappeared from this almost cosmic piece, the breadth of enveloping sound like a limitless night sky.

Alongside the Harvey works was a short orchestral piece, torque, by the young Anna Meredith, also a resident composer with the orchestra. With several rather traditional features - it was pictorial, rhetorical, atmospheric - it seemed to be pushing against the bars of the modernist cage. There was even a chain of horn chords that suggested Britten. But it was assured, confident, effective.

There was also a modernist classic, I Presagi by Giacinto Scelsi. This chamber work, mainly for brass, represented the generation before Harvey. It was played with heavy certainty, acoustic beats coming and going as microtones slithered past each other. In its unprogressive monumentality, it foreshadowed Harvey, as its name might have suggested.

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