What are we to make of John Tavener? Born in Wembley, London, he is a direct descendant of the 16th century composer
John Taverner. He attended Highgate School where a fellow
pupil was composer John Rutter. From there he studied at the Royal
Academy of Music, where his tutors included Sir Lennox Berkeley.
He achieved prominence when his choral work The Whale was
given at the first concert of the newly formed London Sinfonietta,
and later at the Proms, following up this success with the Celtic
Requiem. Both these works were recorded on the Beatles’ Apple
label. In 1977, he joined the Orthodox Church
and Orthodox theology and liturgical traditions became a major
influence on his work. He achieved even greater fame when his
work for cello and strings The Protecting Veil was premiered
at the Proms in 1987 and worldwide adulation when his a cappella
choral work Song for Athene was performed at the funeral
of Princess Diana. He was knighted for his services to music in
the Millenium Honours List.
I return to my opening statement. What are we to make of John
Tavener? He’s made a special niche for himself in writing
works which reflect the Orthodox faith but does this lead
to his creating some great music? On the first CD here, devoted
entirely to choral works, with and without organ, the three
smaller pieces are marvellous creations. Angels contains some spectacular organ writing, exactly right for the text.
This is a sparkling piece. Annunciation is a declamation
and God is With Us contains one of the most marvelous
musical shocks I know! These three pieces are absolutely essential
the longer pieces I have problems with. The Lament of the
Mother of God and Thunder Entered Her both play
for a little over a quarter of an hour and they outstay their
welcome. They are both full of the usual Tavener fingerprints,
and that’s what annoys me about them and about so much of
Tavener’s work – there is no progression. It’s the same language,
the same voice, the same gestures almost every time. In fact
so similar are the pieces that as I listened I missed the
break between the Lament and Thunder and thought
that I was listening to the same work. This isn’t how it should
be. You’d never make such a mistake with Haydn, Beethoven
or Edmund Rubbra. The performances are as dedicated as one
could wish for and the sound is excellent with a good feel
of Winchester Cathedral, where it was recorded.
second CD is devoted to music for string quartet. The first
of Tavener’s quartets recorded here includes a part for handbells,
and contains an oddity. The Last Sleep of the Virgin
is supposed to be played on the verge of audibility, so the
booklet tells us to play it at “barely audible level”. I find
this interesting. Why write a piece of music which you want
people to strain to hear? I once attended a performance of
the work in a large Church and the Quartet was out of sight,
somewhere in the distance, but the handbells, and their player,
were on stage in full view of the public. What was the point?
There’s some good music here, why should we not be allowed
to hear it? Turn up your volume control and hear this piece,
it is rather attractive. The Hidden Treasure has some
real meat on it, and it even has climaxes! But, ultimately,
it’s really just more of the same.
Pärt fillers are in the same vein of slow, lyrical, chanting quietude.
years ago I read a comment in a music reference book which
said that the delightful Praeludium, for small orchestra,
by Armas Järnefelt appealed to simple-minded music-lovers
– so that puts me firmly in my place! . Here, part of me wants
to be cynical and make a similar kind of comment, but, despite
the fact that I find that a little Tavener goes a long way,
and the continual Orthodoxy within his music drives me crazy
after a short time, I still find this music compelling in
a strange kind of way!
think of Tavener as a kind of musical Harry Potter.
If that book has got children reading - and it is to be hoped
that it has made them want to read other things - perhaps
Tavener might get some listening to contemporary classical
music. Those people need to go on to investigate others, starting
with John Adams and the like, and gradually finding their
way back to Haydn and Mozart. We can but hope.
two disk set is in very good sound, and if this is what you
want you’ll love it.