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John TAVENER (b 1944)
Ex Maria Virgine (2005) [37:57]
Birthday Sleep (1999) [5:27]
O, Do Not Move (1990) [2:00]
A Nativity (1985) [2:14]
Marienhymne (2005) [4:42]
O Thou Gentle Light (2000) [4:41]
Angels (1985/1996) [6:45]
Stefan Berkieta (baritone), James McVinnie and Simon Thomas Jacobs (organ), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Timothy Brown
rec. 6 – 8 July 2008, Norwich Cathedral DDD
NAXOS 8.572168 [63:46]
Experience Classicsonline

John Tavener’s is a real success story of contemporary music. He is a composer who has reached a mass public, writing, in a tonal idiom, large–scale works which, perhaps remarkably, have been performed the world over. Since his beautiful a cappella work Song for Athene was performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, in 1997, his star has risen and continues to rise. He must be one of the most commissioned contemporary composers at work today.
 
It wasn’t always so. He started as a die-hard avant-gardist with works such as The Whale (performed at the first concert given by the London Sinfonietta), In Alium (commissioned for the 1968 BBC Promenade concerts – didn’t Edward Greenfield, in the Guardian, describe it as a kind of musical love–in?) and the Celtic Requiem. His conversion to the Orthodox Church in 1977 brought about the major change in his work – moving from modernism towards the huge canvases, built in tonality, utilizing large forms and carrying a very religious message. It was probably his work for cello and string orchestra, The Protecting Veil, commissioned for the 1989 Proms, which really put him on the musical map. It has since been recorded over half a dozen times. Very beautiful and meditative all this music might have been but it was also very restricting. Each new work seemed so similar to the previous one that my interest started to wane. But then, in 2000, Tavener started looking elsewhere for his inspiration and a new interest appeared in his work. To be sure, there’s still the gigantic choral pieces – The Veil of the Temple (2003) – a seven-hour vigil composed to be performed in the candlelit Temple Church – and The Beautiful Names (2007) – a setting of the 99 Names for Allah from the Qu’ran – but the language isn’t that of the heavily perfumed Orthodox Church. Because of this, his music has once again become interesting and fresh.
 
Tavener has written unaccompanied choral music throughout his career and here are some fine examples of this work – two with an important part for organ. Ex Maria Virgine is a kind of Ceremony of Carols in that it sets both well known and less well known texts concerned with Christmas. It’s a big piece and although there are some stunning moments, it’s at least ten minutes too long for its material. But I welcome it for it is so different to those Orthodox pieces. It seems to have more of a sense of itself as a work of music, than as a work of the Orthodox Church. It’s interesting that within its structure I noticed the undeniable influence of both Elgar and Vaughan Williams in the choral textures. Ex Maria Virgine was commissioned by the performers on this disk and this recording was made some five months before they gave the première. Their committed advocacy is astonishing for this music had neither been tried out in public nor had the performers had the chance to receive feedback from an audience.
 
The rest of the recital is made up of Tavener’s smaller pieces and they show the best of him. There’s a lot of diversity in these miniatures. For the first time in a long time, Tavener has written some bold music, strong and purposeful. The only backward step is O Thou Gentle Light which reverts to the Orthodox sound once again. The best is kept for last: Angels is a tumultuous paean of joyful singing over a tremolando organ accompaniment. Fabulous stuff indeed.
 
Tavener is not the towering genius of British music so many would have us believe but he is, at least, trying to meet the listening public and give them music to which they can relate and enjoy. What is really missing in these pieces is that sense of variety, and fun, which comes so easily to someone such as John Rutter. In the long run, despite what I have written about Tavener’s accessibility, I believe that what Tavener will be remembered for are those exciting, and quite startlingly brilliant, early pieces. They, more than all his later works, display a truly individual voice and show a questing compositional mind.
 
I enjoyed this disk, despite my reservations, and hope that it will make many friends for contemporary music and will encourage people to delve further into the rich seam of modern composition. The recording has captured the glorious acoustic of Norwich Cathedral superbly, and shows the voices and organ in a lovely perspective within that magnificent building. The booklet contains a good note and full texts of all the works performed. Now that Timothy Brown has given us this disk, perhaps he might be encouraged to give us some recordings of choral music by his brother Christopher – an important composer of choral music who is far too little known.
 
Bob Briggs

see also review by Brian Wilson

 

 


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