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
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
(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
to music. This is one of those works.
see also review by Adam Binks