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John TAVENER (b.1944)
Svyati (1994) [13.40]
Eternal memory (1991) [10.30]
Akhmatova Songs (1995) [15.15]
The Hidden treasure (1995) [25.25]
Chant for solo cello (1995) [4.09]
Steven Isserlis (cello) Kiev Chamber Choir, Mykola Gobdych (Svyati), Moscow Virtuosi, Vladimir Spivakov (Eternal Memory), Patricia Rozario, soprano (Akhmatova Songs), Daniel Phillips, Krista Bennion Feeney, violins, Todd Phillips, viola (The Hidden Treasure)
Recorded at St. John’s, Smith Square, London on 9th October 1995 (Svyati), Blackheath Concert Halls, London on 3rd May 1993 (Eternal Memory), All Saints Church, East Finchley, London on 20th September 1996 (Akhmatova Songs and Chant for solo cello) and at the American Academy of Arts and letters, NYC on 28th and 29th October 1996 (The Hidden treasure) DDD
BMG CLASSICS RED SEAL 8287664278 2 [68.59]

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BMG’s Red Seal label has produced an austere and rather lugubrious disc of works by John Tavener. All of them include a cello (Steven Isserlis) in their forces, and are apparently linked by the theme of death.

The disc opens with Svyati, a work prompted by the death of a close friend’s father, and which sets (for cello and choir) the Russian Orthodox text used most notably to accompany the exit of the coffin at funeral services. Director Mykola Gobdych takes the piece at a good pace, and it is resonant and vibrant. The Kiev Chamber Choir are presumably more attuned to the type of sound that Tavener is trying to create than a British choir would be, and produce a dense and reverberant sound with excellent bell-like ringing tones. Steven Isserlis is also outstanding with a throbbing, intense and suitably plangent sound.

The ensuing Eternal Memory was composed for Steven Isserlis in 1991 and conveys "the remembrance of death", representing the Paradise Lost. It is here given a luminescent performance by the Moscow Virtuosi, directed by Vladimir Spivakov.

Despite the consistently high standard of the previous works, it is with some relief that we encounter the human voice again in the Akhmatova songs – the cello and string sound was getting a little too unrelenting. Yet these songs are also extremely unremitting, and terribly sombre. While the first three songs are about Akhmatova’s response to, and admiration of, various poets, and the following two about her own writings, the final one is about death. The mood is fantastically captured in another authentic performance by the dedicatee (Rozario) and first performers (Rozario and Isserlis).

The Hidden Treasure returns to the idea of the Paradise and brings to mind the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is more interesting and varied and, in places, lively, than the other works on this disc. It was, again, written with Isserlis’ playing in mind for the sizeable cello part, and is here given a brilliantly sonorous and radiant performance with Daniel Phillips and Krista Bennion Feeney on the violin and Todd Phillips, viola, all perfectly in time and at one with each other’s playing.

The concluding work on the disc, the Chant for solo cello, dedicated to the memory of another friend, is a palindrome (not a ‘polindrome’, as claimed by the sleeve-notes!), which came to Tavener like a dream. It is a sinuous, hauntingly beautiful melody, exquisitely and sensitively played.

My only criticism with this nicely-produced disc is that the music can get a little too much if listened to the whole way through without respite. Yet the works are undoubtedly beguiling, moving and stirring, if often astringent and unyielding, and the performances are all masterly. A must for Tavener-lovers, or for those who are looking for an accessible but candidly blunt glimpse into his weird and wonderful world.

Em Marshall

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