Quite a coup for Aberdeen Alternative Festival, this one. The world premiere of a suite by John Harle, with parts for himself, fellow saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and the voices of Sarah Leonard and Elvis Costello. As if the front four were not impressive enough, the back line included the Lyric String Quartet, Steve Lodder on keyboards, Henry Lowther on trumpet, bassist Chris Laurence, and the splendid Paul Clarvis on drums.
As you might suspect from that roster, we are dealing here with music that defies easy classification, but as anyone who has been wise enough to purchase the Argo CD will be aware, Terror and Magnificence is very probably one of the finest suites to have come from the pen of a British composer in recent years. Harle is a virtuosic saxophonist but his writing talent is clearly as significant. The Shakespearean "How Should I My True Love Know," sung by Leonard and the hugely moving "O Mistress Mine," sung by Costello, are freshly minted but sound like lost gems of Elizabethan soul. His collaborations with Stanley Myers, Voyager and Landscaper, are prime examples of movie soundtrack that is well worth the concert hall platform.
For a first night of demanding music, the performance was remarkably free of ragged edges, particularly given the level of technology — unselfconsciously used — involved. Harle's sensitivity to the acoustic (playing off-mic at times) was reflected in a collective awareness that perhaps explained Costello's evident, and rather endearing, nervousness in such company. It only evaporated after some wag in the audience (whom I'm sure I've heard before) shouted a request for "Psycho," more in joke than expectation. They did do "Shipbuilding," though, and it was affectingly much more than a sop to the EC fans. A triumph all round.