Jonathan Harvey's Bird Concerto with Pianosong

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One wonders what Olivier Messiaen would have done with technology as it stands today when it came to his beloved birds.

From the 1960s onward, the composer was frequently found with a tape recorder in hand, making archival footage of the warbles and chirps wherever he was, traveling to find the…well…rare birds. It was the subsequent works incorporating the tunes of what the composer called “God’s own musicians” that held sway over British composer Jonathan Harvey.

29 years Messiaen’s junior, Harvey has been able to play in the aviary longer and with fancier toys, some of which came into play with his 2003 work, Bird Concerto with Piano Song. Harvey incorporated his digital recordings of California’s native sparrows, orioles and more into the piece, presenting their tweets and calls both in untouched state and with electronic and computer modulations. It’s fertile ground for the wind instruments, which mimic and accompany the tunes of nature, and a piano that both complements and contrasts the work.

Harvey’s is an enchanted forest that can turn on a dime from bucolic, like something out of a D.H. Lawrence novel, to foreboding and Grimm. In a 30-minute work, we see the culmination of centuries of music designed to either mirror or absorb birdsong, starting from cuckoo calls in Medieval British folk tunes to Per Norgard’s D’Monstrantz Voogeli, layered in a similar way to Harvey’s own work. Composer’s eyes, as we hear in Harvey’s multitude of sampled styles, have long been on the sparrow.

Cozied up to this performance by the London Sinfonietta with pianist Hideki Nagano is a trio of other Harvey works incorporating electronics, including his Ricercara Una Melodia for, separately, oboe and cello. These bookend trumpeter Paul Archibald on Other Presences, an apt title for both nature and this disc—not everything is for the birds.