Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera Taverner is one of those remarkable pieces whose creation spanned over ten years. This gestation can be traced to its composer’s first Taverner-themed work from 1961, Fantasia on an In Nomine of John Taverner – elements of which re-appear in the opera. The piece survived the partial destruction of the autograph score during a fire in 1964, receiving its first performance in 1972 when premiered at Covent Garden, conducted by Edward Downes. Remarkably, this elusive work appears here for the first time on a commercially available recording, having been released on disc by NMC in November 2009 in honour of the composer’s 75th birthday year. Also remarkably, this is Peter Maxwell Davies’ first release on the NMC label. The recording is that made in 1997 for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 with Oliver Knussen as conductor.
Not based in fact, the believability of the opera’s plot derives from the genuinely dangerous times in which it is placed. The opera is set in 16th century England amidst the religious turmoil of the Reformation, and the plot opens with the trial of John Taverner before the White Abbot. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Taverner is rescued by the Cardinal but enters the confusing and sinister world of demons and deities in the court of the King, Henry VIII. The second act is a ‘black’ version of the first, with Taverner now as judge over the White Abbot. The character of the Jester forms a thread throughout the entire drama, acting as a catalyst both in the King’s court, and metamorphosing into the figure of Death. With the tables turned and the Reformation having become an unstoppable force the White Abbot is burned at the stake, and Taverner is forced to reflect on his deeds by Rose, “The Lord has led thee, and caused thee to walk into darkness.”
The score itself continues and develops Davies’ frequent assimilations of early music, at certain significant points using material from John Taverner’s own In Nomine and Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas through the use of parody techniques. These elements are heightened by the sonorities of a period ensemble as well as the modern orchestra, coupling a monumental symphonic orchestral palette with the more individualistic human scale of ancient viols and what sounds like hurdy-gurdies. The effect of this at the end of act two scene 3 is quite magical, as the monks sing on while being manacled by soldiers.
I’m not going to pretend that all of this will be an easy listen; possibly even for some seasoned opera fans. This was one of the principal breeding grounds for Maxwell Davies’s early expressionistic period, and with large swathes of atonal serialism and seriously angular vocal lines it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. This kind of statement can be applied to any music of course: no music is everyone’s cup of tea; it’s just that this style is more demanding on the listener than most. It’s not particularly easy to put a finger on references which might give you a hint as to what to expect. Moments early on briefly reminded me of late Stravinsky, the Requiem Canticles for instance. Stephen Pruslin in his well written and informative booklet notes refers to “Davies’ deep absorption, and then giving back in a transformed state, of Mussorgsky’s opera Kovanschchina and Stravinsky’s ... Threni.” Davies is however consistent in his own sound-world, bringing the past and the present together in a restlessly bubbling pot of subtle alchemies and creating a greater sense of forceful unity than with some other modern operas I’ve heard of late
This opera ticks all the boxes for compelling storytelling and dramatic pacing, opening with the landslide of “Call John Taverner, musician, blasphemer, corruptor, heretic”, shouting and whispering in all the right places, manipulating time and allowing the brain to assimilate as well as to become involved and excited – even a bit scared at times. Just when you think you might have had enough of a particular section, the music and dramatic landscape changes, and new images are created in the imagination. The vocal writing may not be conventionally melodic, but has the considerable advantage of being largely understandable with regard to the text. The only thing missing is a soft centre – a love scene or moment of real human tenderness. Even the Rose Parrowe character is rather imperious, morally assertive and deeply unsympathetic. Thank goodness for that many will say, but with few if any moments of light relief the end impression is of a somewhat testosterone-fuelled work of dark and unrelenting masculinity.
One of the remarkable things about the piece is how fresh and contemporary it sounds today, over 35 years after its premiere. This is partly due to the superb BBC recording, with a very strong band of musicians and a wonderful cast. The characterisations are highly distinctive and compellingly convincing, and a few patches of over-wide vibrato aside the vocal performances are all equally effective and powerful. In gathering the elements of narrative, theatrical and psychological drama both epic and intimate, together with an almost unparalleled richness of musical imagery, Davies created an entire work of art which stands tall in an international field full of operatic giants.