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John TAVENER (b.1944)
CD 1
Angels (1985) [7:31]
Annunciation (1992) [5:26]
The Lament of the Mother of God (1988) [15:38]
Thunder Entered Her (1990) [17:12]
Hymns of Paradise (1993) [10:53]
God is With Us (A Christmas Proclamation) (1987) [5:58]
CD 2
The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991) [24:37]

Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Summa (1978 arr 1991) [
Fratres (1977 arr 1989) [11:53]
The Hidden Treasure (1989) [31:02]
David Dunnett (organ), Winchester Cathedral Choir, David Hill (CD 1), Iain Simcock (hand bells), Chilingirian Quartet (Levon Chilingirian – Charles Sewart (violins), Simon Rowland–Jones (viola), Philip de Groote (cello)) (CD 2)
rec. January 1994, Winchester Cathedral (CD 1), July 1993, All Saints Church, Petersham (CD 2)
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6932332 [62:40 + 72:12] 


Experience Classicsonline

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. 

So 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 Tavener.

It’s 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. 

The 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. 

The Pärt fillers are in the same vein of slow, lyrical, chanting quietude. 

Many 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! 

I 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. 

This two disk set is in very good sound, and if this is what you want you’ll love it.

Bob Briggs



















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