NEW YORK — An alchemy of the medieval and modern far beyond chant with beats or any other such crossover ephemera, English classical saxophonist/composer John Harle's Terror & Magnificence explores the age-old dichotomies of sacred and profane/science and superstition/good and evil in a transporting musical fantasy. In songs and set pieces, Harle matches Shakespeare and other voices from the past with a few voices from the present, including the particularly well-cast Elvis Costello.
In fact, Costello's participation has helped Terror & Magnificence make a greater impression than might be thought for such an ambitious album. Out May 13 in the U.S. on the London Records imprint Argo, Terror & Magnificence was issued in Europe and Asia last October, topping the classical charts in Italy and Japan. In the U.K., Terror was a top 10 hit on Classic FM, and a sold-out fall concert tour included a show at London's Royal Festival Hall that had 600 people in standing room.
Billed as the world's most recorded classical saxophonist, Harle's virtuosic tones are best known from his work in the Michael Nyman Band and on several recordings under his own name for Argo and other labels. He has also composed various theatrical scores, one of which helped provide the centerpiece for Terror & Magnificence. Costello sings the songs of "Mistress Mine," a compelling suite Harle fashioned from his music for a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
Though rooted in rock, Costello is thoroughly at home with the idiom of an earlier age, having recorded the classically minded song cycle The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet in 1993 and continuing to tour internationally with the group to great success. He also recently composed three songs for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter as well as a piece for the viol consort Fretwork with countertenor Michael Chance. On "Mistress Mine," Costello delivers Shakespeare's verses with a burnished timbre and plangent phrasing ideal for Harle's hushed, melancholy settings.
"I was keen not to have a standard classical voice sing these songs," Harle says. "Since Elvis is used to singing his own songs, he has a special conviction, an intensity and passion. And with `Mistress Mine,' he achieved an almost surreal level of intimacy. As he said, his goal was to sing The the listener's head was on the same pillow' as his."
Costello adds, "John and I agreed that I shouldn't approach these songs as a classical singer or an actor. I just treated the verses like the beautiful lyrics they are. As I think [English composer) Harrison Birtwistle once told John, there is an inherent music in the words of Shakespeare."
The genesis of Terror & Magnificence was not only in Harle's score for Twelfth Night but his epic mid-'80s work Saxophone Mass and the '95 album Saxophone Songbook, an engaging instrumental interpretation of vocalise and songs from various ages (see ReDISCussion, this page). On "Saxophone Songbook," Harle's pure-toned voicing of laments by Elizabethan lute master John Dowland demonstrated his special affinity with early lyrical forms, as did his haunting account of Guillaume de Machaut's "Qui N'aroit Autre Deport," from the French poet/musician's epochal "Remede De Fortune" collection of courtly love songs circa 1340.
Regarding whether his modern instrument has the provenance to channel the well-wrought thoughts of pre-Renaissance composers, Harle says, "With Bach and Handel, the performance practice is recognized, but with this older music, it's unclear how it was played. Adolph Sax may have invented the saxophone in the mid-19th century, but the idea of conical-bored reed instrument has been with us much, much longer. So in a way, it's just as viable to play a piece of early music on a soprano sax made in 1966 as it is a bombard made in 1366."
The title track of Terror & Magnificence is an eerie, ambient evocation of the Gothic era, with a chorus of saxophones in counterplay with backing voices, percussion, and a recitation of verses by Machaut. The album's other performances include soprano Sarah Leonard, who gives glorious voice to three settings of anonymous Tudor texts in the yearning ballad suite "The Three Ravens." Jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard plays on several tracks and is featured in a lyrical chase with Harle on the duo improvisation "Hunting The Hare." The last piece on the disc is "Rosie-Blood (Sederunt)," Harle's reanimation of a work by 12th-century Notre-Dame polyphonist Perotin that features countertenor William Purefoy.
Aside from "Saxophone Songbook" (Unicorn-Kanchana), Harle's previous recordings include a stellar vehicle for his long-form playing: a 1992 Argo disc of concertos by a trio of contemporary English composers, with Michael Nyman's songful "Where The Bee Dances"; Gavin Bryars' legato-lined "The Green Ray"; and Mike Westbrook's jazzy "Bean Rows And Blues Shots." A '95 Argo follow-up, "Sax Drive," featured concertos by Stanley Myers, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Michael Torke.
For EMI Classics, Harle recorded two albums in the early '90s: a set of standard concert works for saxophone with Sir Neville Marriner and a tribute to Duke Ellington, The Shadow Of The Duke, which is currently deleted. (An odd discographical tangent: For Zomba Records a few years back, Harle turned a theme he had composed for a Nissan car ad into a techno-pop single, "Nissan Donna," that went to No. 6 on the U.K. dance charts.)
As a featured soloist, Harle can be heard in a lyrically intense Frank Martin Ballade on Decca as well as in Ingolf Dahl's grand alto-sax processional on Argo. Harle also appears on a new album of Birtwistle's music, Panic. The Argo set features as its title work the concerto Harle debuted at the '95 BBC Promenade Concerts in London. The performance garnered the largest audience ever for a musical premiere (broadcast to 100 million people in more than 16 countries). Out earlier this year in Europe, Panic will be available as a special import in select U.S. stores in May.
In the U.K., Harle's considerable profile for a classical musician — he was the subject of a 1988 BBC TV special, One Man And His Sax — helped galvanize strong retail support at such outlets as Farringdons Records and the Virgin Megastores. Terror & Magnificence is "ideal for our customer: alternative leaning and not too stuffy," says Chris Tooth, classical product manager for the Virgin/Our Price web. "It was our best-selling classical release in October, and since classical buyers don't always pick things up right when they come out, the disc has continued to tick over nicely."
In the U.S., Terror & Magnificence is the highest-profile Argo release since Nyman's soundtrack to the film "Carrington," with the label banking on the Costello connection (realizing that Warner Bros. puts worldwide sales of The Juliet Letters at more than 300,000). Greg Barbero, VP of London Records (U.S.), says Argo's campaign will be one of its most "aggressive" to date. The label acquired a Costello fan mailing list from Rykodisc (which issues Costello's pre-Warner Bros. catalog) in exchange for putting info on his Ryko discs in the Terror booklet, and it plans to send nearly 7,000 fans postcards and cassette samplers featuring songs from "Mistress Mine" and "The Three Ravens."
For promotion and possible broadcast, Argo is editing a videotape of the complete Terror & Magnificence concert last fall at Royal Festival Hall, which featured not only the album material but Costello singing Dowland's "Flow My Tears" and a new Harle arrangement of his classic "Shipbuilding." Barbero says an abbreviated live version of that show may come with a mid-summer tour being planned in which Harle, Costello, and company will perform on radio programs and at selected retail outlets along the East and West Coasts.
A tour of actual concert venues is being bandied about for the fall. (Harle as a composer is managed by ICM in London; as a performer he is managed by IMG in London. His compositions have been published by PolyGram, but he is currently moving to Chester/Schirmer.)
Argo can count on several public radio outlets already eager to play Terror & Magnificence, including two New York stations. On May 13, WNYC music director John Schaefer will debut the album on his nightly New Sounds program, and that week, WFUV will also slot the disc in its "Longplayer" feature.
Rita Houston, music director for the triple-A WFUV, says, "With certain core artists of ours, like an Elvis Costello, our listeners are eager to hear everything they're involved in and appreciate the station bringing this more offbeat stuff to their attention."