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Sir John Tavener (b.1944)
Ex Maria Virgine – A Christmas Sequence for Choir and Organ (2005)* 1[37:57]
Birthday Sleep (1999) [5:27]
O, Do Not Move (1990) [2:00]
A Nativity (1985) [2:14]
Marienhymne (2005)* [4:42]
O Thou Gentle Light (2000)2 [4:41]
Angels (1985/96)3 [6:45]
James McVinnie (organ)1; Stefan Berkieta (baritone)2; Simon Thomas Jacobs (organ)3
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown
rec. Norwich Cathedral, England, 6-8 July 2008.  DDD.
Texts and translations included.
* World Première Recording.
NAXOS 8.572168 [63:46]


Experience Classicsonline


I purchased this première recording of Ex Maria Virgine without trying to obtain a review copy, having seen it prominently displayed in Naxos’s advertisement in the December music magazines.  I can’t claim that I’ve completely absorbed it yet – it’s a paradox that Tavener’s Christmas music seems to take longer to seep into the psyche than, say, The Protecting Veil, with its much more immediate appeal.  I see the potential of the music, as I did when King’s first commissioned The Lamb for the Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols – I just hope that it doesn’t take me as long this time to bring the music on board.  When I’ve done so, I’m sure it will be as established a part of the Christmas scene as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols has become.

Tavener has taken a number of texts, both the familiar and the less familiar, and woven them into a sequence not unlike the Britten Ceremony, though with no sense that he is imitating the more established work.  Whereas Britten opens with the plainsong Hodie, Tavener sets the words in a modern idiom from the start, and that idiom, as I have already indicated, is a fairly uncompromising one.  The familiar words from the opening of St John’s gospel in Verbum caro factum est are set in unison but, though the music displays what the excellent notes (by David Truslove) describe as ‘poignant chromaticism’, this is a tough chromaticism and its irregular rhythms indicate that we had better not sit back and wallow in the familiar message.  Tavener’s Word made flesh is more a challenge to the world than a consolation.  Yes, it is ‘serene’, to quote the notes again, but it is an unsettling serenity.

Where earlier composers, including Britten, have either adapted traditional melodies or sought to produce a synthesis between medieval/renaissance evocations on the one hand and a modern idiom on the other – a synthesis which I must admit to cherishing in a familiar piece such as Joubert’s Torches – you won’t find the same blend in Tavener.  You will, however, find rhythmic excitement to more than match Torches in Nowell! Nowell! (track 2)

If there is any trace of the familiar late-medieval tune of Sweet was the song (track 4) or of There is no Rose (track 6) or of the traditional tune in Ding! Dong! Merrily on high (tr.7) I can’t hear it.  Only Rocking (‘We will rock you’, tr.8) seems to me to evoke anything close to the comfortingly familiar – and this soon leads into another powerful and impressive setting of Unto us is born a Son (tr.9).  In this respect, the beautiful late-medieval painting of the Adoration of the Magi (Mariotto di Nardo, fl.1394-1424) is inappropriate window-dressing, though I’m sure that it will lead to many impulse purchases.  For once, Naxos haven’t chosen a picture appropriate to the music, though their presentation is in every other respect first-class.

As I write, Ex Maria Virgine has yet to receive its first complete public performance, scheduled for St John’s College on 12th December, 2008.  I’m sure that it will be the first of many and that it is destined to become part of the Christmas scene.  Even the more powerful sections, such as Unto us is born a Son (tr.9) have their quietly beautiful moments, though the majority of this section is pretty angular.  This multi-lingual work (parts of tr.9 are in Greek and Arabic) ends as it began with Verbum caro (tr.10), this time in a more peaceful form – the serenity that was only partly present at the beginning now asserting itself, though the effect is still rather unsettling.

The other works on the CD, ranging in date from 1985, the first version of Angels (tr.16) to Marienhymne, another 2005 composition, add to the value of this recording.  They also remind us of the wide range of Tavener’s interests, from the Greek Orthodox in O Thou Gentle Light (Phós hilaron, the evening hymn, tr.15, usually translated ‘Hail gladdening light’) to the German Marienhymne (tr.14).  Most of them relate to one of the fixed points in Tavener’s music, his response to what the notes call ‘The Eternal Feminine’ in the form of the Virgin Mary. 

The programme ends appropriately (tr.16) with an assertion of the Byzantine doctrine of the Angels – the same angels who spread the mantle of the Virgin over Constantinople in its hour of need in The Protecting Veil; this music is as thrillingly beautiful as that earlier piece.  The evocation of earlier musical forms, which I found to be largely absent from the sections of Ex Maria Virgine, plays its part here and in the preceding O Thou Gentle Light (tr.15); I certainly hear more than a hint of Orthodox chant in this beautiful music.  Angels rounds off the whole programme in the same mood as that wonderful prayer which Cranmer translated as the closing collect of Anglican Evensong – ‘Lighten our darkness ...’

Angels receives a beautiful performance, wholly worthy of its tone, as do the other works and the various sections of Ex Maria – Timothy Brown, his soloists and his choir are ever alert and sympathetic to the moods of the music.  They have clearly absorbed the idiom more readily than I have – after all, their college commissioned the new work.  If they haven’t yet taken me fully into the heart of this major commission, I’m sure they will – if not this year, then perhaps next.

The notes are very helpful and the texts are already online for anyone who wants them if they’ve downloaded the recording (available in 320k sound from classicsonline and passionato, also from eMusic).  The transliteration of Phós hilaron leaves something to be desired, with ’Ihsou CristeV (Iésou Christes) rendered as Ilsou Xhriste.

As with all the Naxos CDs of English choral music that I have heard, the recording is wholly worthy of the performances.  Strongly recommended – but you may need to persevere.  It’s well removed from the cosy Christmas of renaissance art or of chestnuts roasting by the fire, though there’s a place for those, too.  If you want the latter, go for another Naxos CD, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites (8.559621).  That Anderson CD is available only in North America, but it’s available to download anywhere – see my December, 2008, Download Roundup.


Brian Wilson




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