WELTETHOS, an 80-minute oratorio by Jonathan Harvey,
one of England's most eminent composers, had its London première
last Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall, on the South Bank, in the
hybrid Ether Festival. It seemed set to be one of the most
uplifting events of the current London season.
It is based on an elaborate text by Professor Hans Küng, the
German-based Swiss theologian and bête noire of the
Vatican, who was nearly expelled as a heretic by Pope John Paul II,
and who remains a thorn in the flesh of his friend and fellow
German-speaker Pope Benedict XVI.
Weltethos sets out to explore the individual merits and
identity of the world's great religions, including Confucianism;
and, in the spirit of promoting world peace, throws down an ethical
challenge to the combative bitterness with which rival believers
have persecuted each other for centuries.
A preceding concert in the adjoining Purcell Room had included
Harvey's mesmerising Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. This
incorporates a recording of the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral,
where many of Harvey's commissioned sacred pieces have had
ravishing premières under Martin Neary. It confirmed, once again,
that Harvey is a composer of subtlety and sparkling invention,
whether or not he employs electronics to further that end.
His "I Love the Lord" is one of the tenderest anthems cherished
by English cathedral choirs; who also value his other liturgical
music, such as "The Dove Descending", or his Evening Canticles.
Harvey has a gift for fashioning sacred works of unerring beauty,
moulding his forces with delicacy underlined by a feeling of deep
joy, reverence, and mystery.
Weltethos is also the name of Professor Küng's Global
Ethics Foundation, based at the University of Tübingen in southern
Germany. Harvey's massive score was first played in Berlin by the
world-famous Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, and was
given its UK première to launch - aptly - the Olympics Culture
Festival, by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who also
played it here.
So why - in London anyway - did this work, so admirable in
intentions, feel like a damp squib?
The first problem was Küng's text, only partially audible. In
English (it might have been better had we heard it in German: we
would have been no less puzzled), much it came across as banal or
even infantile. A home-grown English parish pageant might have done
better. For genuine insights into world religions and their complex
interrelations, one would need to look elsewhere - perhaps to
Küng's more challenging philosophical writings.
The banal effect was made worse by a classic error of judgement:
only an exiguous summary of the words was given to the audience,
instead of the full text. In the desultory seven-page handout that
served as a programme, five sides were filled with performer lists
or biographies. Perhaps it spared us some of the more embarrassing
textual detail; perhaps it was designed to.
The choir, the glorious CBSO Chorus, superbly trained by Simon
Halsey, who also prepared the Berlin première, together with a fine
solo group from London Voices, could not have been bettered.
Harvey's score requires unvoiced and semi-voiced muttering, as
explored by modernist composers of the 1960s and '70s, from whose
ranks Harvey (b. 1939) emerged.
Likewise, the CBSO's Children's and Youth Chorus, who -
dazzlingly, aggressively, and slightly unnervingly - proclaimed the
work's motto, "We are the future," rather like Little Red
Book-waving Maoist Red Guards, were brilliantly alert and
Under their Principal Guest Conductor, Edward Gardner (a former
Gloucester Cathedral chorister, for five years the sensational
Music Director of English National Opera), the CBSO triumphed.
These are instrumentalists of epic talent, from the leading strings
to the back row of the brass. The woodwind is consistently their
most desirable section, and periodic solos, or refined detail - a
tinge of flute, then oboe near the start, a barrage of flute and
piccolos midway - only confirmed this.
Nevertheless, what they had to play did not convince. It sounded
often remarkably like "wrong-note" Messiaen, or Stravinsky
manqué: galumphing wodges of massed sound, almost
unredeemed by any filigree of solo work. The music walloped Küng's
text, not paining the ear so much as irritating it. Harvey, who can
write as delicately as Debussy or Dallapiccola, allowed his own
textures little chance to breathe.
A brief toccata-like flurry from the organist, Stephen Farr;
deep trombones and tuba heralding the section on Judaism; or some
valiant attempts by the superb Hungarian cimbalom player, Chris
Bradley, to break through the textures - these gave glints of hope.
Even the eight valiant percussionists, apart from a few articulate
but inexpressive flurries, seemed functionless.
Scant differentiation - maybe deliberately - of the contrasting
creeds scarcely helped variety; and the speaker, the magnificent,
intuitively musical Samuel West seemed all but wasted.
Weltethos sounded not so much multum in parvo as
parvum in multo.
The violin parts, one gorgeous passage of harmonics apart, felt
flaccid; and, amid the hurly-burly, the violas virtually
disappeared. Best were the launch of a scherzo for the dancing gods
of Hinduism, with the CBSO double basses (as so often, stars of the
show); and the last section, easily the cleverest and most
appealing, which slyly gives Christianity the best tunes -
assuming, that is, that there were any tunes to be had.