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John TAVENER (b. 1945)
Lament for Jerusalem (2002) [54.35]
Angharad Gruffydd Jones (soprano)
Peter Crawford (counter-tenor)
Choir of London and Orchestra/Jeremy Summerly
rec. 30-31 March 2005, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
NAXOS 8.557826 [54.35]


John 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.

The 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.

The 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 Jerusalem from Chapter 23 of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

This 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.

I 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.

It 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.

As 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.

I 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 the text.

Counter-tenor 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.

Whilst 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.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by John Quinn


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