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Sir John TAVENER (b.1944)
Lament for Jerusalem [49í16"]
Patricia Rozario (soprano); Christopher Josey (counter-tenor)
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Australian Youth Orchestra/Thomas Woods
Recorded July 2003 at Trackdown Scoring Stage, Sydney.
ABC CLASSICS 476 160-5 [49í16"]

 

 

This piece was commissioned for Ars Musicalis Australis, an arts foundation that is dedicated to providing opportunities in the performing arts for young Australians. This, I assume, explains the involvement of the Australian Youth Orchestra, which is clearly a very fine and committed orchestra.

Since the CD benefits from an introductory note by the composer I can do no better than to draw heavily on his commentary by way of explanation of what this piece is about. Tavener writes "Jerusalem is a universal symbol which signifies the changeless and celestial synthesis of the Cosmos, and the primordial longing of man for God. The Lament is a sign, therefore, and a lament for the lost paradise that is universal." He goes on to explain that "[Lament for Jerusalem is] a love song, lamenting our banishment from home, and the temporary loss of our beatific vision." Heady stuff, and those who dismiss Tavener - unfairly and unwisely, in my view - as a "holy minimalist" will no doubt read these words, sigh in exasperation and move on.

To do that would be a mistake, however. Iím sure it helps greatly if the listener can buy in to Tavenerís religious sentiments and philosophy, if only in part. However, I donít believe that itís necessary to subscribe to his theology to appreciate Lament for Jerusalem as both a work of art and a creation of no little beauty. After all, Iím sure that countless atheists have appreciated religious works of art such as Michelangeloís Sistine Chapel frescoes.

As usual with Tavener, in my experience, the work is thoughtfully put together. In the first place he has chosen his texts with care and has allocated them amongst the performers with comparable exactitude. Lament knits together three distinct religious traditions. There is the Christic tradition (Christís lament for the city of Jerusalem, as recounted in St. Matthewís Gospel, chapter 23); there is the Judaic tradition, represented by words from Psalm 137 ("By the waters of Babylon"); finally, there is the Islamic tradition, represented here by words from an Islamic mystical poem, Masnavi. In Tavenerís score, the Christic text is always sung (in Greek) by the choir; the Judaic words are allotted to the chorus and the soprano soloist; the counter-tenor declaims the Islamic verses.

The orchestral scoring is also precisely divided. Flutes, oboes and strings, Tavener tells us, represent love; the brass suggest royalty and dignity; while harp, Tibetan temple bowls and tubular bells denote ritual; finally the singers are responsible for the Logos, the Word of God. I have mentioned all this because I found it very helpful in understanding the work.

Structurally, Lament is not complex. The score is divided into seven stanzas, the longest of which plays for fractionally over nine minutes. Each begins with the chorus singing in unison. With the exception of the final stanza their words are always taken from Psalm 137. At each of these appearances of the choir the music has increasing power. Then the countertenor contributes a passage from the Islamic text. Fittingly, his music suggests the ornate vocalizing of a muezzin. Then we hear the soprano. Each time her text concludes with a touchingly simple "Alleluia" (in Greek) Ė in the last stanza only this is all she sings. Then the choir, this time singing homophonically, gradually unfolds the Christic text in Greek. With each succeeding stanza the amount of text that is sung is gradually expanded and also the music grows in power and majesty. Finally, each stanza concludes with a short refrain sung very quietly by an unaccompanied semi chorus of just twelve voices, the effect of which is haunting and very moving. At the end of the whole work the music of the semi chorus concludes Lament on what I suspect is a deliberate note of ambiguity.

For the most part the music is slow moving but it seems to me that it is always purposeful and, even when it sounds simply beautiful and almost static one senses an inner strength. Without a doubt the commitment displayed by all the performers is a vital factor in the music making its effect. These, I believe, are the same artists that gave the first performance of the work in 2003 and they sound to have the piece under their collective skins. Patricia Rozario has long been closely associated with Tavenerís music and I should not be surprised if, once again, he had not written a soprano role with her specific vocal accomplishments in mind. On this occasion he does not require her to sing in alt to quite the extent that he has in some previous works but the tessitura is still pretty demanding and wide ranging. She sings with her customary purity of tone and diction. The Australian counter-tenor, Christopher Josey, is an artist I havenít encountered before. His exotic timbre suits the Islamic texts very well. The choir and orchestra have evidently been scrupulously prepared for this assignment and they perform splendidly under the impressive control of Thomas Woods.

In his preface Tavener states that ideally Lament "should be performed in a sacred space or other generous acoustic that will allow the music to Ďbreatheí in its slow, measured pace as befits a lamenting, mystical love song." The name of the venue for this recording suggests it is a "conventional" recording studio. However, to my ears the results sound eminently satisfactory. The recorded sound is both clear and atmospheric. The documentation is good and besides the composerís own note the full texts and, where appropriate, an English translation are provided.

By todayís standards the playing time of this CD seems ungenerous. However, I think that on artistic grounds it was the right decision not to include any more music. Lament needs to stand alone and speak for itself. This is a work of no little power at times but above all it is a work of haunting beauty, fastidiously crafted. Admirers of Tavenerís unique musical voice need not hesitate.

John Quinn



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