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World needs room to breathe

12 October 2012

Roderic Dunnett finds his ears irritated by a a Hans Küng setting


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 bristlingly exciting.

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.

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