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Jonathan Woolf
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John TAVENER (b.1944)
Song for Athene – for solo violin and strings (1993) [6:47]
Dhyana – A Song for Nicola for solo violin and strings (2007) [6:16]
Lalishri for solo violin and orchestra (2007) [34:35]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Lark Ascending (1914, revised 1920) [15:56]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, June 2007

The packaging is geared to admirers of the violinist first and foremost, whose name is emblazoned in print size two and half times larger than that of the composers. Yet Benedetti was the inspiration for two works new to the Tavener canon, Dhyana and Lalishri, and it was for her that Tavener has newly arranged his Song for Athene. The feminine muse as ever proves fruitful for him.
The big work here is Lalishri and in its size and ambition it most resembles the Icon of Eros which was recorded on Reference Recordings RR102. Lalishri takes as its inspiration the poetry of the fourteenth century Hindu saint Lalla Yogishwari and those qualities of intensity and simplicity that informed it are made manifest in Tavener’s writing. It’s cast in five sections and moving through “dance, ecstatic trance, to a musical expression of Bliss.” The dances are written in canon, whilst part of the violin writing is obviously based on Indian ragas.
Tavener’s patented brand of stasis and ethereal trance is usually written off as undramatic and indulgent – as well as a host of other things – but I’ve never felt that to be the case with his works for violin. Lalishri utilises the kind of pitch bending familiar in this kind of work with terpsichorean drama enriched by the solo violin’s ecstatically high and soaring lines high on the E string and demanding arpeggiated writing. The third Lalishri cycle opens with minimalist drive; here the colours Tavener asks for are at their most intense – with a hoarse sounding solo, persistent and demanding passagework, pizzicati and some thwacking drama. In each of the cycles a “celestial” tune appears, played at a distance by a string quartet, and its magical reappearance is one of rapt devotion and heightened expression - though we should note that its nearest cousins are Bruch and Elgar.
Dhyana means “contemplation” in Sanskrit  and it’s a small, compact work written for violins, violas, cellos and the solo violin. Tavener utilises drone and raga-derived sounds which he alternates with a highly evocative, almost defiantly late nineteenth century solo violin line. It seems that Benedetti’s romanticist credentials have tempted the composer to write far more explicitly in this vein than ever before.  The Song for Athene is best known from its having being performed at the funeral of Princess Diana. Its arrangement here is highly effective; the tremolandi passage especially and the surge of expression at 5:10.
The disc actually begins with another kind of “ethereal”, if that’s how you characterise VW’s The Lark Ascending – the booklet does and proposes ethereal as an over-arching album concept. There’s a close-up perspective on Benedetti’s violin which accentuates some ambient studio noise and renders some of her bowing rather unlovely. Orchestrally, the bass line is too heavy for my taste and some of Litton’s pauses too calculated. And whilst the tempo is an acceptable one I didn’t find the thing especially moving or entirely naturally phrased.
But the main focus is the Tavener. Atheistic souls will recoil from Lalishri but adherents will find the new work to be suitably attractive, not undramatic, and worthily added to the Tavener canon.
Jonathan Woolf


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