The Veil of the
Temple is a huge conception. The
full version plays for 480 minutes,
according to the Chester Novello website
I believe the full score consists of
850 pages! What we have here is a recording
of the concert version which Tavener
made and which was performed by these
same forces at the Henry Wood Promenade
concerts in London on 1 August 2004.
I vividly remember listening to that
performance on the radio. The music
made a huge impression then but that
impact is as nothing compared to what
one experiences when one can follow
the libretto and read about the piece.
In case I should forget
to mention it in my enthusiasm for the
work and the performance this is a good
time to say that the documentation accompanying
these discs is absolutely exemplary.
A 70-page booklet (in English only)
contains the full texts, translations
where appropriate and authoritative
notes and commentaries, including some
by Tavener himself. There are also copious
photographs and a good deal of information
about the Temple Church, which is highly
relevant to the work itself. There is
also a website www.theveilofthetemple.com
Back to the music.
As I say, this recording is of the concert
version but the performance was set
down at the two overnight première
performances of the full score (only
the last two sections, Circles VII and
VIII were played on 1 July.) This, I
think was a very sensible and practical
way to make the recording. I wonder
how much of the recording of Circles
VII and VIII stems from the 1 July performance
for the performers. Stephen Layton in
particular, must have been very tired
by the time they reached the end of
the full performances but there is no
audible trace of weariness. Mind you,
Iím perfectly prepared to believe that
the lack of tiredness might be due simply
to inspiration and adrenalin rather
than to editing.
Iím an admirer of Tavenerís
music, albeit not an uncritical one.
Sometimes Iíve had doubts about his
larger-scale works. For example, We
shall see Him as He is, the world
première of which I was lucky
enough to attend in 1992, has always
seemed to me to be very successful.
Similarly Lamentations and Praises
(2000), written for Chanticleer. However,
Iíve still to come to terms with Fall
and Resurrection (2000). The
Veil of the Temple, at least in
this concert version, strikes me as
being a great achievement, not least
in its cumulative power.
The cumulative effect
is key to an appreciation of the work,
I think. Writing in The Daily
Telegraph immediately after the
première of the full score, the
respected critic, Ivan Hewitt said:
"Itís not that Tavener has discovered
some new voice Ė more that the familiar
one was given a cogency Iíd never heard
before. The piece is, above all a masterpiece
of pacing, beginning in a modest way
with a handful of singers and instrumentalists,
and building with inexorable control
to a mighty climax with what seemed
like hundreds of performers. Thirteen
months later, after the Proms performance
of the concert version, Mr. Hewitt had
this to say in the same newspaper: "Öthe
piece seemed stronger than everÖ.the
iron grip of the form, and the telling
economy of the music Ė and its profound
beauty Ė made it a profound experience."
I can only agree with his verdict even
though, unlike him, I havenít heard
the vast complete score. I would just
add that like Arvo Pärtís St
John Passion this is a work that
only reveals itself fully when one reflects
on all the music at the end.
Though there are copious tracks on the
CDs Iíd strongly advise listeners not
to sample the music. Instead, set aside
2 Ĺ hours and allow yourself to be led
on what Tavener calls a "journey
to the Centre."
The forces required
to perform The Veil of the Temple
are substantial but itís only towards
the end that the full ensemble is united
(nearly 200 singers surrounded the audience
at the amazing climax of Circle VIII,
with the instrumentalists in the middle.)
Two mixed choirs are required in addition
to the vocal soloists listed at the
head of this review. The instruments
include a duduk (an eastern reed instrument
that sounds rather like a combination
of cor anglais and saxophone.) This
always plays with the soprano soloist.
There is also an important part for
organ. An Indian harmonium is required
and the percussion section consists
of Tibetan temple bowls, tubular bells
and tam-tam. Telling use is made of
a Tibetan horn which sounds, accompanied
by tam-tam, between each of Circles
I to VII. Finally, at the end of Circle
VIII Tavener adds a septet of brass
The structure of what
is, in essence, an all-night vigil is
fairly simple. Tavener divides the music
into eight Circles. He describes the
design as being "rather like a
gigantic prayer wheel, each one ascending
in pitch, and in Cycles I Ė VII with
verses from St. Johnís Gospel at the
centre." Thus Circle I is "in"
C major and each succeeding Circle raises
the core pitch by a tone, rising through
a whole octave by the time Circle VIII
is reached. One effect of this is that
the music becomes progressively brighter
simply because the singers are singing
in higher registers. However, the structure
operates on several levels and so there
are other progressions too. One can
think of it as a journey from darkness
to light, or as a progression in which
Circle VIII is the eighth day of the
week. This last Circle also has a great
resonance with Easter and the Resurrection
of Christ. Musically, the progression
is from extreme simplicity and spareness
through increasing harmonic and tonal
richness to what I might perhaps call
the simple complexities of the final
Circle. (By "simple complexities"
Iím trying to convey the fact that towards
the end there is a great variety of
texts being declaimed, of rhythms being
delivered and of musical material being
played and sung but thereís still a
masterly directness and economy of musical
One other thing to
say about The Veil of the Temple
is that for all its length the musical
material is not that extensive. Helpfully,
the booklet lists all the sections of
each Circle, distinguishing those sections
that Tavener has excluded from the concert
version. I must admit to just a little
confusion here. Tavener himself writes
that only Circle II has been included
in full in the concert version, with
parts of all the other Circles retained.
However, the layout of the text in the
booklet implies that Circle VIII, which
runs for about 30 minutes in this recording,
is also complete. A look at the sectional
listing of the entire score shows that
Tavener includes settings of the same
text in more than one Circle. This,
however, is not simple repetitiveness,
I think. There are some sections that
are frequently repeated, by design.
One very important example of this is
the simple chordal setting of the word
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me." This recurs
throughout the score but as the work
develops so the music is sung at different
dynamics and with an ever-increasing
enharmonic richness. There are a number
of longer texts, prayers or extracts
from scripture, which recur. However,
judged by the instances on this recording,
the texts are expanded in length as
the work progresses and also the music
increases in sophistication and richness.
Iíve tried to give
some background to this daring work.
What of the music itself? Let me just
point out what for me were a few highlights.
The very opening is other- worldly.
The soprano soloist intones some words
by a thirteenth century Sufi mystic.
She sings unaccompanied, with the duduk
commenting, as it were, on each of her
phrases. Heard in a resonant, darkening
church this music must make an indelible
impression. After this we hear for the
first time the short "Lord Jesus
Christ" motif, to which I referred
Tavener has apparently
extracted four choral anthems from the
score for separate performance and publication
(theyíre listed in the booklet.) All
four are heard for the first time in
Circle II. However, there are more extended
versions of all four later in the work
and I would imagine that it is from
the longer versions that Tavener has
drawn his separate anthems. All of them
will be welcome additions to the choral
repertoire but I can easily foresee
one of them, ĎMother of God, here I
standí becoming especially popular.
Itís a rapt and very beautiful piece
that radiates a simple, sincere devotion.
Itís vintage Tavener.
Circle II also includes
a setting of The Beatitudes of St. Isaac
the Syrian. Imaginatively, Tavener scores
this for unison treble voices alone.
The music is surprisingly lively but
this and the purity of the boysí voices
splendid conveys innocent joy.
In the music of Circle
V thereís a discernable stepping up
in terms of exaltation. The music has
a new richness and intensity even though
much of it continues to be slow-paced.
The Primordial Call on the Tibetan horn
with which Circle VII opens is huge;
for the first time (I think) the organ
underpins it in addition to the tam
tam. In this Circle thereís an increased
amount of ecstatic choral chanting,
which contributes hugely to a feeing
that fervour is mounting.
The Primordial Call
that opens Circle VII is justly described
as "Apocalyptic." In telling
contrast this is immediately followed
by the reappearance of the soprano soloist
and the duduk for the first time since
the whole piece began. The Circle, as
here presented, culminates in a fourteen-minute
setting for unaccompanied solo tenor
(Simon Wall) of the passage from St.
Johnís Gospel that immediately precedes
Christís Agony in Gethsemane ("Father,
the hour is come, glorify thy Son that
thy Son may also glorify thee").
This extraordinary setting is a real
tour de force for the soloist
and Wall sings it superbly.
Nothing that has gone
before can adequately prepare the listener
for the awesome grandeur and power of
Circle VIII. In the performances the
singers were arranged so that they surrounded
the audience with the instrumentalists
seated on a central platform. The sonic
effect, to say nothing of the visual
impact, must have been amazing. As it
is the recording copes very well indeed
with the spatial effects (I have only
been able to listen in CD format; this
must be an occasion when SACD really
come into its own.) When Tavener moves
to the passage that covers the rending
of the Veil of the Temple (a double
metaphor for Christís death and an incident
in the twelfth century when the Knights
Templar were scandalised by the attempt
of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick
II to effect a rapprochement with Islam)
the music is truly awesome, with what
sounds like dozens of gongs being sounded.
Yet, in an equally dramatic coup, the
tumult ceases abruptly and all that
can be heard is s quiet solo on tubular
bells. In due course, the orchestral
brass joins in to crown the textures
of the setting of a Hindu Upanishad
hymn. Finally, the performers lead the
audience out of the church into the
dawn in procession, singing a joyous
Hindu peace chant. The music fades away
as the musicians pass from our hearing.
(I suspect the fading here may be a
bit "engineered" but the effect
is still successful.)
I havenít begun to
do justice to this extraordinary, visionary
work in the above paragraphs. I remember
vividly a review written many years
ago in Gramophone magazine by the late
Felix Aprahamian of the first ever recording
of Messiaenís La Transfiguration.
He described the reaction of a friend
to whom he had played the recording;
"I felt as though I was in the
presence of God." The Veil of
the Temple may well have the same
effect. It is fashionable in certain
quarters to dismiss Tavener as a "Holy
Minimalist." If that barb were
justified (which I donít think it is)
then it certainly doesnít apply here.
This is a moving and very considered
work of art and I rejoice that it is
available on CD to a wide audience.
The original commission came from The
Temple Church and is rightly described
by Tavener as "daring." Despite
the popularity of Tavenerís music it
is also daring of BMG to have issued
this recording. I hope their enterprise
is rewarded by large sales.
Iíve said much about
the music but little about the performance.
Suffice to say that it is wholly worthy
of the music. The singing and playing
is superb and Stephen Layton directs
with dedication and total commitment.
The recorded sound is superb and very
atmospheric. As Iíve already said the
documentation is some of the best Iíve
seen in a long time.
This release is a major
event. I cannot recommend it too highly.