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Sir John TAVENER (b. 1945)
Lament for Jerusalem

(2003. Revised ‘Jerusalem Version’ 2004) [54:35]
Angharad Gruffydd Jones (soprano); Peter Crawford (counter-tenor)
Choir of London and Orchestra/Jeremy Summerly
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, UK, 30-31 March 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557826 [54:35]


In June 2005 I reviewed the première recording of this work by the primarily Australian forces for whom it was written (see review). What we have here, however, is not simply a second recording of the piece. Instead it’s a recording of a version incorporating a reduced orchestral scoring. Tavener made this version in 2004 specifically for The Choir of London (see website). They and their orchestra aired it at their inaugural concert together in London in December 2004 and in that same month they took the piece with them and performed it at concerts in the Holy Land. Hence, this reduced version is referred to in the booklet as the ‘Jerusalem Version’ of the piece.
 
In my previous review I quoted the composer’s own comment about the work, which I think bears repeating here. “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.”
 
I’m sure that it’s not without symbolic significance that Lament combines elements from three distinct religious traditions, all of which have close associations with the earthly city of Jerusalem. There is the Christic tradition (Christ’s lament for the city of Jerusalem, as recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 23); then 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.  Tavener allots the Christic text, in Greek, to the choir; the Judaic words are sung by both the chorus and the soprano soloist; the countertenor declaims the Islamic verses.
 
Lament is constructed in seven Stanzas, though on this Naxos disc these are further sub-divided into a Stanza, which is the opening choral section, followed by a Cosmic Lament, which contains the remaining music of the stanza. Each stanza 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. The Cosmic Laments are always introduced by the countertenor, who sings a passage from the Islamic text. Fittingly, his music suggests the ornate vocalizing of a muezzin. He’s always followed by the soprano soloist and each time her text concludes with a touchingly simple “Alleluia”, in Greek. 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.
 
There are two absolutely crucial differences between this Naxos release and the earlier ABC disc, and I wonder if the two are related. One is the size of the respective forces employed. The other is to do with pacing and timings. Jeremy Summerly takes 54:35 for the whole work, while Thomas Woods (ABC) requires just 49:16. That’s quite a significant difference and a comparison of the timings for each of the seven stanzas shows that Summerly is consistently slower than his colleague. It may be that this difference is “simply” a matter of interpretation but I wonder if the smaller forces enabled Summerly to dare to be broader? It’s possible that had Woods wished to adopt similar tempi his larger forces might have sounded too heavy. Actually, I think both approaches work equally well and, to my ears at least, are validated by the size of the respective performing forces. In a nutshell, the greater intimacy afforded by Summerly’s smaller choir and orchestra both allows and vindicates broader tempi.
 
How do the two performances compare? Both pairs of soloists are good. Christopher Josey, the ABC countertenor, has a rounder, more sensuous and overtly expressive tone than Peter Crawford (Naxos). In terms of sound Crawford is firmly in the English cathedral countertenor tradition, which some may prefer to Josey’s more exotic sound. Crawford sings very well and with fine feeling but I think that perhaps Josey’s more refulgent tone is slightly more appropriate for the style of the music. Let me hasten to add, however, that no one buying this Naxos release should feel short changed by Crawford.
 
Soprano Angharad Gruffydd Jones, a new name to me, is up against fearsome competition for the soloist on the ABC disc is none other than Patricia Rozario. Miss Rozario is perhaps more closely identified with Tavener’s music than any other singer and he has written several parts with her voice specifically in mind. Lament for Jerusalem is a case in point, I believe and her distinctive timbre suits the music admirably. However, Miss Gruffydd Jones is by no means put in the shade by her illustrious rival. She sings very well indeed, projecting the music with conviction and with lovely purity of tone. I enjoyed her performance very much.
 
The choral singing is first rate on both releases. Of course, we are dealing with two very different approaches here for the sound of a small choir of thirty one (Naxos) is very different to that made by a full sized choir (ABC) I very much like the Naxos disc in terms of the ambience and clarity imparted by the smaller choir. That said, there’s inevitably more grandeur and sheer weight of tone from the larger choral - and orchestral - forces on the ABC disc, and this tells for Lament grows in cumulative power as each stanza unfolds. But it’s important to realise that we are addressing here two completely different conceptions of the same music, each of which is completely valid, not least because the composer has specifically sanctioned, and indeed encouraged them. One advantage that I did feel the ABC disc has is that the semi chorus is more clearly differentiated from the main choir as compared with the Naxos release, where I believe that just three singers form the semi chorus.
 
I’m not entirely sure what modifications Tavener has made to the orchestral scoring for this ‘Jerusalem’ version of the score but so far as I’m aware the original score calls for a full symphony orchestra. The precise forces are helpfully listed in the Naxos booklet and, for example, it seems that Tavener has eliminated horns and heavy brass from the full scoring, retaining just the three trumpets. I find that the reduced scoring works perfectly well and none of the important colouristic effects called for, not least in terms of exotic percussion, appear to have been sacrificed..
 
Finally, I can report that the documentation on the Naxos release is comprehensive, including the text, and that the recorded sound is first rate. Those comments apply to the ABC release too, by the way.
 
So, which version should collectors buy? Both releases are eminently recommendable and, frankly, I’d advise anyone with a keen interest in Tavener’s music to invest in both for the two differ in so many important respects, are equally valid, and shed complementary light upon one of Tavener’s most eloquent and important recent scores. The Naxos version enjoys a significant price advantage, of course, and it may be easier to locate in certain parts of the world. Pressed to put my head on the block and declare a preference I’d opt for the Naxos by a short head. I pass up the ABC soloists with particular regret but right now I have a marginal preference for the intimacy of the ‘Jerusalem Version’ of this score and for the greater breadth of Jeremy Summerly’s interpretation - and on this occasion I feel that with greater breadth also comes greater depth.
 
So this Naxos release of a very fine work by John Tavener is warmly welcomed. However, if, having got to know the work through this admirable release, you get the chance to acquire the ABC version I’d encourage you to do so. I’m very glad to have both on my shelves.
 
John Quinn 
 

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