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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Sir John TAVENER
Fall and Resurrection (2000)
Patricia Rozario - Soprano, Michael Chance - counter-tenor, Martyn Hill - psaltis, Stephen Richardson - bass, BBC Singers, Adrian Peacock - voice of God / Christ / Devil
St. Paul's Choir/John Scott
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
World premiere performance (2000) DDD
full price
BBC OPUS ARTE OA 0841 D [96:00]



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A blind faith is not necessarily a precondition for the successful creation by a composer of a grand ritualistic, religious musical setting. Witness the requiem masterpieces of Berlioz and Verdi, neither of whom, as far as we can tell, believed in God. In Fall and Resurrection we have a composer driven by a blind faith creating something considerably less than a masterpiece. It is though an impressive show with grand musical gestures rendered with vast and varied resources, and lighting effects that symbolically illuminate the drama – a sort of son et lumière. The DVD well captures this world premiere performance of three years ago with appropriate sense of occasion. The work is dedicated to one of Tavener’s admirers, Prince Charles, and was performed shortly after the composer’s knighthood (no connection I trust!).

As Tavener says, "the work should ideally be performed in a building with a large acoustic". And so it is, St Paul’s Cathedral being one of the stars of the show. During the performance the BBC cameras pan and zoom with an expertise born out of a tradition of televising generations of royal weddings, funerals and other state occasions, lovingly caressing the building and making full use of the lighting. The sound engineers capture something of the huge space and at the same time manage to banish the worst elements of the building’s notoriously reverberating acoustic. The Cathedral even has the equivalent of its own vocal part as its bells ring out at the climactic end of the piece, an integral part of the event.

The work is in three parts, each broken into titled sections, progressing from the Fall in Part 1 to Resurrection and transfiguration in Part 3. The opening emerges from silence and darkness – literally - with long low notes that swell in sound as the rest of the orchestra joins in with the Representation of Chaos. As a general idea converted into musical procedure this is not much different from the opening of Wagner’s Ring, the main difference being that the latter is a swelling E flat chord, the Tavener a growing atonal cacophony. We learn from the helpful introductory talk given by Stephanie Hughes in the Cathedral just before the performance that composition of this short opening section had been a "huge mathematical undertaking". A matrix of notes was given 40 different permutations to be played at 27 different speeds. Each of the many pages of this part of the score had taken Tavener about a month to compose. Well he need not have bothered because nobody would have known if Stephanie had not told us. However, it is an undeniably powerful effect (owing nothing to its mathematical complexity) and it provides a couple of pointers to the work as a whole. Firstly, one of the main musical means by which Tavener keeps the music going is to launch a series of mini climaxes that in turn provides for alternating passages of huge dynamic contrast, the biggest climax of all being reserved for the end and very exciting it is too. The other point about the opening section is that in learning about how it was composed we get a glimpse of some of the pretension that is behind the work’s inception. – but more of that later.

After Chaos, the Paradise section brings in Adam, sung with intense commitment by the excellent Stephen Richardson in dialogue with a species of Turkish flute. He is then joined in ecstatic duet with Eve sung by an equally intense, committed and excellent Patricia Rozario, something of a Tavener specialist. The choir enters powerfully for the Fall to bring about another climax. And so it goes on. All this requires a tight grip on the range of forces employed that includes an exotic horn-type instrument played high up in a gallery as well as the Cathedral organ. Richard Hickox does a marvellous job from the podium, and not just on the day for there is in the performance a clear indication of extensive rehearsal time.

As composer, Tavener handles his effects with great skill. For some people, that is what the music largely consists of – a series of effects. If you are one of these people, then the DVD version in some ways can be said to enhance the work, adding value to those effects. The lighting and camera work may be fairly obvious in the way they play on symbolism but are none the less powerful for that. An example is at the end of Part Two, Prediction, where the ethereal sounds are accompanied by shots taken by a camera that slowly pans up the inside of the dome to the top in a gesture of aspiration.

What inspired this work? You can find out by reading Tavener’s introduction published in the booklet and also watch his interview on the DVD. If you are at all squeamish about composers talking pretentiously about their own work then I strongly recommend you give both of these a miss and give the work a chance by going straight to it. I wish I had for I might have avoided a negative effect on my judgement. I also recommend you do not read the rest of this review. You could, if you wish, safely move over to another review (of the CD version) on this site at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2000/may00/tavener.htm

What we learn from Tavener in the booklet is that the work "encompasses….. the events which have taken place since the beginning of time, and before time". He elaborates on that early passage described by Stephanie Hughes – the bit that took each page a month to compose: "the possibility of good and evil are present….therefore every single note carries with it a metaphysical significance although, because of the huge proliferation of notes, this cannot be heard by the human ear". Whether this implies that Tavener is privileged with possession of the inhuman organs required to hear it, who knows? Here’s another random sentence later on: "The beauty and love with which the Holy Spirit quickens the celestial image-archetypes are identical to the beauty and love with which He quickens their created counterparts".

Now I like to think I have a fair cross section of friends and acquaintances, but cannot think of any of them who would think this anything other than pretentious religious, pseudo metaphysical clap trap. In saying that I do not wish to infer an attack on those with faith. That is another matter. The trouble with Tavener is that his arguments lack intellectual substance and that is often what some people have said over the years about his music, taken intrinsically. So it can be argued that the music matches Tavener’s verbal rhetoric. My view is that the rhetoric of the music, as far as rhetoric goes, is of a far higher order than that of the composer’s pontifications. The moral being, he should be advised to keep his mouth shut.

Rather than proffer such advice, the producers have offered Tavener another platform on which to pontificate in the form of the interview on the DVD. Here we have more of the same. I thought, "music is liquid metaphysics", a nice one. However, there is an illuminating bit where Tavener is being fair on himself, and thus in turn on us and it helps to see where he is coming from. He says how angry he got at the atonal serial composers of the sixties, "the po-faced serialists of Darmstadt", accusing them, ironically, of pretension. Fair enough though. He then attempts to explain why he has often been accused of writing music lacking in any kind of intrinsic rigour. "Certain critics say there is no substance in my music.. but it’s probably the last thing I want". There is no answer to that. But he then goes on, if I get his drift, to define this nasty thing called "substance". It is, for example, what Beethoven does in his compositions. He condemns Beethoven for developing his "musical ideas" - for personalising them, i.e. defiling them – because the ideas themselves, which Tavener presumably regards as inspirational, come from the "holy spirit" or "God". Can anyone imagine Beethoven’s music as all exposition and no development? The great composer was once described as being "ripe for the madhouse". It follows that the fact that Sir John Tavener may appear to be off his trolley means that he may one day be regarded as a towering genius. I, for one, doubt it.

John Leeman

 



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