‘Madonna’ and ‘synthesizer’ are two words which seldom go together in a classical-music context, but Jonathan Harvey defies our expectations with delight. Saturday evening’s concert of the ‘Total Immersion: Jonathan Harvey’ weekend at the Barbican contained three works: Body Mandala (2006) for orchestra, Messages (2007) for orchestra and chorus, and Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986) for orchestra, live electronics, and two synthesizers.

Jonathan Harvey, © Maurice Foxall
Jonathan Harvey,
© Maurice Foxall

Harvey is a cerebral composer, technically impeccable and keen on detail especially in orchestration. But his sense of the spiritual extends beyond his works’ titles, and he is far more Stockhausen than Milton Babbit (despite having studied with the latter) – and plenty of neither as well. A deep sense of ritual ran through all three of the evening’s works, coaxed out impeccably by conductor Martyn Brabbins.

Body Mandala was a bold, exciting opening piece, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s brass made a strong start, with deep pulsating bass notes and intriguing overtones emerging above. The orchestra revelled in Harvey’s careful tonal shadings and his piece’s extremes of register. The performance had a monumentalism recalling Messiaen, and its ethereal, spiritually sincere climaxes suggested the Frenchman as well.

A sense of the ecstatic carried over from this piece into Messages, receiving its London première. The messages concerned are the names of Jewish, Christian and Muslim angels, as well as a single divine Buddhist figure, Kwanyin. The BBC Symphony Chorus incanted these names softly, with a sense of hushed reverence. Harvey’s scoring replaces the violins with an alternative high string section of cimbalom, two harps and piano, and the outlandish colours produced from the orchestra (which also featured a celeste and various Eastern percussion instruments) were a remarkable accompaniment to the chorus’ gentle chords.

At the end of Messages, the chorus gradually faded away, repeating the name ‘Aniel’ until almost silent, and the piece ended with a delicate invocation of monastic bells. This was a beautiful, loveable composition, played with deftness and sensitivity.

Madonna of Winter and Spring, which comprised the concert’s second half, is a less continually ecstatic work; it does, though, likewise touch on the spiritual, portraying, in the composer’s words, Mary’s ‘soft, yielding influence on forces which are assertive, brutal or despondent’. Live electronics recorded and redistributed the sound around the room, which created a disorienting effect, abetted further by the synthesizers’ range of odd noises.

Perhaps the most harmonically dense piece played, Madonna... is in four sections: ‘Conflict’, ‘Descent’, ‘Depths’ and ‘Mary’. As several of these names suggest – and indeed as in Body Mandala – registral contrast is a key compositional element, with the low pitches of ‘Depths’ mirrored in the heights of ‘Mary’. This incredible final section somehow suggests the emergence of Spring, in its subtly altered harmonies and timbres. Its gentle close, exploiting the electronic elements very fully, was again soft, sincere and memorable. But it is the closing chords of Messages which are still ringing in my head.