Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem was composed in
2002 for choir and orchestra. The composer describes it as a
‘mystical love song’ that combines texts from Christian,
Islamic and Greek sources sung in English and Greek. Tavener’s
selection of texts mixes Psalm 137 (‘By the rivers of Babylon’) with
extracts from the epic work Masnavi by the 13th
century Islamic spiritual master Jalaluddin Rumi. This original
version, written for SATB choir and large orchestra, was commissioned
by Father Arthur E. Bridge, OAM,
for Ars Musica Australis.
subject matter made it highly suitable for the Choir of London’s
collaborative project staged in Palestine and Israel in December 2004. The Choir was established in 2003
and is a group of UK-based professional singers who come together
as The Choir of London, without a fee, for special collaborative
projects for charity. In order for the piece to be performed
by them and their orchestra, Tavener reduced the orchestration
- for example cutting out most of the brass - but changing the
choral layout to SATTB. This version was premiered in December
2004 at Christ Church, Spitalfields
and then became a musical focus for their Palestine-Israel project.
work is in seven Cycles and the shape of each cycle is the same.
The choir sings a passage from Psalm 137, culminating in an
ecstatic Alleluia. This is followed by a purely instrumental
Cosmic Lament, then the solo counter-tenor sings an extract
from Masnavi. The soprano solo sings a further passage
from Psalm 137 which concludes with a quiet threefold Orthodox
Alleluia and finally a choral setting of Christ’s lament over
Chapter 23 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
structure remains the same for each cycle. Tavener repeats his
musical material, but each time he alters, expands and develops
it. Notably, the choir’s laments at the end of each cycle get
longer and more impassioned. Tavener makes this effect more
noticeable by contrasting the choir’s loud outbursts with a
solo trio singing a text from Luke chapter 19, verse 14.
have had my doubts about some of Tavener’s recent large-scale
pieces, preferring his smaller choral works. Much of this present
work translates construction techniques familiar from his choral
pieces onto a larger-scale canvas. For most of the time the
piece is remarkably thinly scored - even the orchestral Cosmic
Lament interludes. It is only when the choir’s lamenting
gets impassioned that the orchestra follows, supporting and
amplifying. But, though the piece does have a very wide dynamic
range, the principal feeling is of quiet meditation. Tavener
achieves this through restatement of material and the satisfying
feel of his static harmonic base.
is pointless for a critic to complain about what Tavener’s pieces
are not; the entire motor for his musical construction means
that his ends are not the same as music more firmly anchored
into Western European musical development. His music is what
it is, and you either love it or hate it.
I have said, this piece successfully translates what I love
about Tavener’s music into one of his large-scale forms. It
helps that it receives a wonderfully powerful and committed
performance. Sustaining the concentration and power of Tavener’s
lines over a long period is tricky to bring off and it is easy
to underestimate the difficulty of performing his music. The
Choir of London succeeds admirably and does so with a lovely
warm tone and fine, flexible lines. Just occasionally I was
disturbed by an apparent tenor dominance in the choral sound,
but that might be what was intended. Tavener’s music is not
sparing when it comes to high tessitura and the choir’s upper
voices cope beautifully, keeping a good tone when singing in
the higher reaches.
would have preferred, though, to be able to hear more of the
words. Most of the piece is sung in English and it would be
desirable if the words came over more strongly. In the CD booklet,
Jeremy Summerly says that ‘the musical structure is that
of a lattice whose proportions are carefully designed so that
the listener is invited to focus on key points of the text…’
It would make more sense therefore if we could actually understand
Peter Crawford, who also sings in the choir, has a lovely warm
tone and flexible phrasing. The slightly soft-edged, feminine
quality to his voice means that he blends well with the fine
soprano soloist Angharad Gruffydd Jones so that the two form
a continuum, as if the solos are sung by just one voice.
I did not quite believe the extravagant claims made for the
piece in the CD booklet, I enjoyed this performance immensely.
The recording is a great credit to The Choir of London and Orchestra
and Jeremy Summerly. If you are interested in Tavener’s music
and like fine singing, then buy this disc.
by John Quinn