The Tavener Requiem fills just over half of this disc’s
sixty three minute playing time. It is clear that EMI are marketing
the CD on the strength of the Requiem and that the other
two substantial pieces are simply fillers. As is clear reading
the reviews of this concert from February 2008 this Requiem
was planned and expected to be one of the highlights of Liverpool’s
year as European Capital of Culture. This recording has been made
in association with BBC Radio 3 and documents that world premiere
performance given on 28 February 2008.
be famously terse about their own works and Tavener is no
exception. The main body of his description in the liner-notes
deals with the philosophical background. This is totally valid
but would have benefited from a musical analysis in tandem.
Instead we are left as listeners trying to impose a musical
‘meaning’ onto what we are hearing. The BBC engineers had
been given an almost insuperable task. The Metropolitan Cathedral
in Liverpool is one of the most beautiful and inspiring modern
religious spaces I know. The key to it is its circular form
with the altar in the centre beneath an extraordinary glass
lantern which in turn is surmounted by an architectural crown.
But what one gains visually is lost sonically. Even amongst
cathedrals this one has an acoustic where sound washes around
and detail is lost in a general blur. Additionally, the echo
tends to emphasise the higher part of the audio spectrum.
None of which bodes well for a demonstration class recording.
Hats off then to engineer Tim Archer for achieving the musical
definition and clarity he does. But this is at a price – the
reviews make clear that the spatial deployment of the performers
was key to the work’s conception. There is not room here to
go into detail, enough to say that the forces were deployed
in a cruciform manner demanding front to back and left to
right dispersal. This is not a SACD disc but it would seem
that it would have been an ideal piece for that format. Listening
to this disc there is only a very standard left-to-right spread
– in fact I would go so far as to say that it is not as stereophonic
as most discs – and there is almost no front-to-back depth.
On the back cover of the booklet is a picture taken during
the performance and if you look very carefully you can see
that the important cello soloist is set up on a platform well
behind the strings of the orchestra and the two vocal soloists
- the brass are further back and to the left in a side chapel.
I would not have had any sense of this at all from listening
to this disc alone. As mixed to CD the three soloists all
occupy the same foreground position. However, understanding
the technical problems arising it is superbly handled with
the caveat that this must always mean that one’s impression
of the ‘spatial theatre’ of the work is limited.
As such I cannot
imagine a composer getting a better first performance of a
work. The solo writing for both vocalists and the cellist
in particular is terrifyingly cruel – high and exposed throughout.
Yet clearly all three performers not only sing or play their
notes they perform them with an attack, confidence
and understanding rare in early performances of any new work.
Josephine Knight (cello) repeatedly has to leap to stratospheric
heights and every time her intonation is secure, her tone
pure. Even when she and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas are doubling
musical lines in alt tuning is impeccable. Thomas’s soprano
part calls in the main for lyrical ‘passive’ singing and this
she achieves with great beauty and the radiance the score
requests. In contrast Andrew Kennedy is required to sing with
a muscular heldentenor quality again superbly achieved. I
do not think I have heard better live performance of such
clearly taxing music in a long time. And in this they are
ably supported by the massed forces of the Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir all conducted (or semaphored
as one concert reviewer put it – you can understand why in
the circumstances) by the rising star conductor Vasily Petrenko.
Whether the work
itself has lasting worth I am not sure. The choice of the
title Requiem seems somewhat arbitrary. For sure some
of the text is taken from the Mass for the Dead and
Tavener is self-avowedly fascinated by ‘what lies beyond’
but structurally this piece has a mirror form with three movements
leading to a central Kali’s Dance which then reverses
to the seventh and final movement which seems to owe more
to Eastern philosophies than Western religions - so why the
western title? My biggest confusion is that I cannot relate
some of the musical material to the words being set. There
are sequences of swooping cello writing that seems to change
little in pitch, dynamic or intensity regardless of the words
being sung. Ritualistic bells chime periodically and frequently
throughout the whole piece. One guesses that they are marking
out specific passages of time but this is not clear from listening
alone. Likewise there are eighteen ‘additional singers’ named.
Given the superlative quality of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Choir one can only suppose they fulfilled a semi-chorus role
but again one would have had no idea of this on the evidence
of one’s ear’s alone. The central pivotal movement Kali’s
Dance/Dies Irae erupts into an extended sequence of rasping
trombones and stuttering trumpets. Briefly for the only time
in the entire performance there seems to be some issues with
co-ordination of the disparate musical groups. On either side
of this movement are two movements named The Still Point
which are as beautiful as they are simple and brief. To
me this is where Tavener is at his best – I am not often convinced
that his preference for large forms and time-frames is matched
by his ability to produce musical material that can stretch
convincingly across those spans.
same is true of both of the other works on this disc; the
eighteen minute two movement Mahāshakti for solo violin, tam-tam and
strings and Eternal Memory – a ten minute work for
cello and strings. Back in the neutral acoustic of the Philharmonic
Hall much more detail can emerge from naturally balanced strings.
The violin soloist is Ruth Palmer who proves to be accurate
and technically competent without offering much in the way
of personality. I have to admit to my attention wandering
during this piece although Tavener in his note says that “the
music is both rapturous and hieratical”. I’m sure an analytical
study would illuminate many of the subtleties and nuances
contained but for the average listener with only the evidence
of his ears to go on it does seem to meander.
A liner-note niggle here – her biography states; “Ruth Palmer projects
[a] powerful personality and sincere musicianship. Her distinctive
tone and honest approach……” etc. Which, to my mind, begs the
question; do some players therefore have a dishonest approach
or are guilty of insincere musicianship? In other words –
don’t write sweeping statements that actually mean nothing.
It smacks of a publicist’s puff and does not do her any service.
The final work is Eternal Memory featuring the excellent Josephine
Knight again. First performed in 1992 by Steven Isserlis it
is clearly a companion piece to Tavener’s celebrated The
Protecting Veil of four years earlier. Clearly at this
time Tavener was still in the thrall of the Russian Orthodox
Church and the work would appear to be based on chants from
this church. Once again the liner-notes - which are in fact
a straight reprint of the description of the piece on Novello’s
– Tavener’s publisher – website - provide no elaborating information
beyond the spiritual concepts that inspired the piece. It
was only after about the third listen through that I finally
realised that the opening chord sequence is in fact a close
cousin of the opening of the 1812 Overture which is
indeed based on the Russian Orthodox Troparion of
the Holy Cross ("God Preserve Thy People").
As such it makes for a beautiful opening but even
Knight with her earthy tone and secure technique can make
little of this piece. Several rather limp canonic episodes
try to inject some energy into proceedings but once these
figures have passed around the string orchestra in desultory
fashion they peter out.
Sir John Tavener composes in a unique and personal style which speaks
movingly to many. Unfortunately, I find it does not speak
to me and I am sure that is my loss. These performances are
clearly as committed and passionate as one could hope to hear
and for those already acolytes to the Tavener cause now further
prompting is necessary.
A CD of characteristic Tavener in exemplary performances displaying
his strengths and weaknesses depending on the listener’s point
by Rob Barnett