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Sir John TAVENER (b. 1944)
Zodiacs (1997) [1:55]
YpakoŽ (1997) [13:34]
Palin (1977) [8:42]
Mandoodles (1982) [4:55]
Pratirūpa (2003) [29:42]
In Memory of Two Cats (1986) [2:11]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, March 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570442 [61:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Sir John Tavener has become something of an icon these days, attaining the ultimate in respectability as Prince Charlesís favourite composer.† He is most famous for his choral music, most notably the Song for Athene. This disc collects together a much more intimate aspect of his output that I didnít know existed.† On first hearing itís a rather puzzling disc, but it repays the effort of repeated listening, particularly with the later works.

The booklet notes, written by the performer, do their best to contextualise each piece, which makes it rather irritating that they arenít arranged chronologically: there is no good reason for this, and it breaks up any sense of charting the composerís development.† Raat sometimes gets a little carried away in his admiration for Tavener: for example, the piano is ďtransformed into a strikingly individual, sonorous world of chiming bells, highly lyrical melodic phrases, and recurrently, thundering sound clouds, confronting the omnipresent silence in the strongest possible way.Ē† Quite.

The Eastern mysticism that Tavener has made his own - he has been a member of the Russian Orthodox church and imbibed its colours into his music - is present in most of these works. He does a good job of using the instrumentís more limited resources to achieve similar effects to those in his larger orchestral and choral works.† Yet the earlier works tread the line between consonance and dissonance in a way I find quite irritating.† YpakoŽ, for example, has a simple, profoundly spiritual melody which is allowed to sing out towards the middle and end of the piece.† To get there, however, we have to put up with all manner of meanderings that seemed quite purposeless to me.† Palin, his first piano work, features many instances when one key is sounded frequently and continuously for about 10 seconds at a time.† Itís meant to evoke approaching thunder, but it just sounds tedious.† Then the second half of the piece is a mirror image of the first (the Palindrome of the title); all very clever, but if the first half didnít inspire you then the second wonít either. 

The lighter works on this disc, tracks 4 and 6, are dedicated to the memory of Tavenerís cats, and they see a return to traditional, triadic harmonies.† These portraits are affectionate and warm: we even have glissandi to represent the pets running over the keys.† Mandoodles contains jazz rhythms and reference to a Chopin Prelude, and In Memory of Two Cats is simple, bell-like and appealing.† As with YpakoŽ, an austerely beautiful melody is allowed space to sound.† It is at moments like these that the disc is at its best and these get their fullest flowering in Pratirūpa, the longest and most recent work here.† Influenced by the Sufi philosophy that Tavener currently follows, it suggests that the real essence of spirituality soars above any one religion.† The title is Sanskrit for reflection and it is in this piece that Tavenerís mastery of musical stasis is most apparent.† There is little by way of melody here, but that doesnít seem to matter as the piano evokes a mood of ethereal stillness, the higher consciousness that Sufi strives towards?† The peace is occasionally interrupted by violence, including a moment when the pianist seems to thunder down most of the keyboard three times.† Itís here, however, that we get closest to the religiosity of Tavenerís choral works and the evocative immobility can be hypnotic at times. 

All this suggests a sense of development in Tavenerís style, from overt modernism through to a more sophisticated use of harmonies in his later works.† The disc - the only one of this music? - is a welcome step in plugging this gap and any of the composerís fans who want to experience his broader range shouldnít hesitate.† Performances are highly committed and the sound is up to the usual Naxos high standard.
Simon Thompson


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