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Sir John TAVENER (b.1944)
Schuon Lieder
I-Herbstlaub [3:29]
Canon a 4 [0:08]
II [1:16]
Canon a 4 [0:16]
III [1:49]
Canon a 4 [0:25]
IV [1:37]
Canon a 4 [0:32]
V [4:40]
Canon a 4 [0:40]
VI [3:29]
Canon a 4 [0:09]
VII [3:06]
Canon a 4 [0:15]
VIII [1:58]
Canon a 4 [0:24]
IX [2:34]
Canon a 4 [0:31]
X [2:09]
Canon a 4 [0:40]
XI [3:05]
Canon a 4 [0:08]
XII [3:52]
Canon a 4 [0:15]
XIII [2:44]
Canon a 4 [0:24]
XIV [2:28]
Canon a 4 [0:32]
XV [1:33]
Canon a 4 [0:36]
XVI [3:41]
Canon a 4 [0:08]
XVII [3:52]
Canon a 4 [0:15]
XVII [0:53]
Canon a 4 [0:23]
XIX – Ein Leid [4:50]
Canon a 4 [0:31]
Postlude [1:39]
Patricia Rozario, soprano, The Schubert Ensemble – Simon Blendis and Jan Peter Schmolck (violins), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), William Howard (piano), Gillian McDonagh (Tibetan temple bowls)
rec. 24-26 November 2004, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
BLACK BOX BBM1101 [62:19]

There is a remarkable story behind this disc. Frithjof Schuon, whose poetry Tavener here sets, was a Swiss metaphysical poet, mystic and universalist philosopher who converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 19 and then became a Sufi Sheikh at the age of 30 – although the Virgin Mary remained his focal point of devotion. He wrote terse, abstruse, impenetrable philosophical prose in French, yet during the last years of his life he started pouring out poetry that, in contrast to his prose, is beautifully simple, radiantly innocent, and, curiously enough, in the native German of his childhood. Tavener had discovered the complex prose in the 1990s and, though deeply drawn to it and felt it had a deeper significance for him, found it difficult to assimilate. Then one day he received a visit from an Apache medicine man. Schuon had often written that meeting American Indian shaman enables one to have meaningful visions and dreams. Shortly after the Apache had gone, Tavener had such a vision – and it was of Schuon. Until then he had been a strict Russian Orthodox, and hadn’t strayed outside his religion. Yet this vision, he felt, gave him dispensation to investigate and explore other religions, and to set their core texts and doctrines to music (culminating, one feels, in the Veil of the Temple). Tavener at once contacted Schuon’s widow who pointed him in the direction of these late, simple, but deeply spiritual and significant poems – and the Schuon Leider are a wonderful product of these curious events.
The poems have been set for a strange – but effective – combination of soprano (not surprised to see Patricia Rozario as usual in this role!), string quartet, piano and 4 Tibetan temple bowls. Tavener has chosen to set 19 poems, which treat various spiritual subjects including love, Krishna, beauty, prayer, Maya, the transience of the world and the unchanging, eternal, all-pervasive nature of the Absolute. Some are almost haiku-like, whereas others are more extensive and contain more elaborate descriptions. The songs are separated by brief canons for strings which are linked by the use of the melodic notes of the preceding song. The style is quite striking – with ritualistic simplicity and repetition, reflecting the child-like purity of the poems.
Other composers of whom one discerns touches in the music’s style include Wagner, Arvo Part, Britten (the strumming piano accompaniment in track 9), Bach (in the piano lines of track 13), Shostakovich (string quartets) in track 17, whilst there are actual references to Mozart (“Zauberflote”) in track 5, traditional Japanese musical instruments and sounds in track 15 (“Japanese music…”), the gypsy violin in track 27 (“the gypsy’s’ violin”) and Schubert in track 25, a direct quotation from Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise, a mirror image of Schuon almost exactly replicating the opening words of Schubert’s song.
Some of the songs are remarkably tender (1, V, VII), others fierce and strong with inner spiritual conviction (II, IX and XIV), and still others harshly yet radiantly absolute (XII – the focal song of the cycle, written earlier than the rest, and described as the “key” to the others).
Rozario copes excellently with constantly incredibly high lines. Her singing is wonderfully atmospheric – spine-chillingly so at times, yet amazingly warm and lush at other times. The Schubert Ensemble and pianist William Howard are wonderfully sensitive in their accompaniment.
Although critics might find the songs too “wail-y”, I think they work well. They perhaps take a little getting used to – this is not a familiar, or perhaps instantly likeable, sound world, but are nonetheless incredibly effective. Personally, I was utterly delighted to encounter Schuon’s stunningly beautiful, deeply sincere and overwhelmingly genuine poetry for the first time, and was pleased to hear what Tavener has done with it. Not all Tavener works – yet in some pieces, such as that masterpiece The Veil of Temple, he makes an incredibly valuable contribution to music. This is one of those works.
Em Marshall
see also review by Adam Binks




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