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John TAVENER (b. 1944)
The Protecting Veil (1987) [37:42]
Last Sleep of the Virgin (1992) [22:19]
France Springuel (cello)
I Fiamminghi, The Orchestra of Flanders/Rudolf Werthen
rec. Onze Lieve Vrouw, Presentatiekerk.Gent, Belgium, 15-18 September 1997
TELARC CD-80487 [60:07]

Musicians are, by and large, a pragmatic bunch. Talking to some during an interval break at a concert for which I was doing some page turning, I asked what they thought of Tavener – knowing that they had recorded a fair number of his works. "Oh, the arrogance of the man" came the surprisingly impassioned reply, "but at least we made some money from those recordings." What indeed is one to make of other recordings of a work when the composer himself once announced that Steven Isserlis was the only soloist who could do it justice? "Just smile and wave" like the Penguins in ‘Madagascar’; leave all of the mysticism and hype to one side and take the music and performance at face value.

While I don’t have the Isserlis/LSO/Rozhdestvensky recording to hand, I do know it well, and I must say I am highly impressed by this alternative. It has been available since 1998, but has now been reduced to mid-price by Telarc, so those of you who know and love The Protecting Veil can splash out and rediscover the work all over again. The acoustic of Onze Lieve Vrouw in Gent is ideal for this music. There is plenty of richly atmospheric resonance, and the notes are surrounded by a special aura of thrilling wonder which the music in both works on this CD is all about. The solo part is beautifully played, and the orchestra have a lightness of touch which allows the slightly lumbering Annunciation and Resurrection movements to work better, making you less likely to reach for the fast-forward button. If you can manage to find a patient shop assistant, get him to play you the second Nativity of the Mother of God movement. Revel in the subtle play between soloist and strings, noting how the solo line grows organically from within the quiet textures of the orchestra, advancing and receding like evening sunlight on calm water. Then there are those open, medieval-sounding passages which draw you into more symbolic, icon-like imagery. The louder passages provide a different kind of contrast, but with a beautiful cello duet weaving through the fervent strings those moments could almost be chiming bells.

Moving on to The Last Sleep of the Virgin I was pleasantly surprised to read that the premiere performance was with the Chilingirian Quartet and percussionist and festival organiser Kim Sargent, who I came to know during his brief and sadly troubled couple of years as adjunct-director at my place of work, The Hague Conservatoire. It is to the version with dedicatees the Chilingirian Quartet on Virgin Classics that I turn for comparison. I have to say that, while the Rudolf Werthen’s string orchestra arrangement is perfectly acceptable, the quartet recording wins hands-down.

The Chilingirians are also recorded in a church acoustic, with the bells generally softer in the mix, and with a more rounded sound and far less obvious attack, allowing the resonances to combine in a quite magical effect. The quartet performance is also more sustained, coming in over two minutes longer than I Fiamminghi. With the string lines as solos there is a greater intensity at certain crucial moments, where with a whole string orchestra some of the trills just reminded me of Respighi. The addition of basses does have an impressive effect at some points – the rising interval at 15:30 led my brain straight to Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Where there are solos written into the arrangement these come over as being just a little too ‘cute’, the diminution in scale from whole section to solo never having been part of the score in the first place. The general effect of, in the composer’s description, being barely able to hear the music, its being almost beyond one’s grasp, is effectively conveyed by the Chilingirian Quartet’s recording. With I Fiamminghi it’s a slightly more restless night: more ‘The Last Sleep as the Virgin’, for which impertinence I remain unrepentant.

If you do not know the Chilingirian Quartet recording don’t be put off. Like the penguins in ‘Madagascar’; "you never heard anything…." The Last Sleep of the Virgin is a genuine 20th century classic to my ears, and like all good music can take being mauled around a little in its stride. I have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these works, and recommend this CD highly for its shimmering beauty.

Dominy Clements


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