John Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox
Church in 1977 convinced that it retained a “primordial essence”
that the tired Western devotional traditions had lost. Increasingly
oriental influences which we associate with timelessness have
become part of the fabric of his music.
Just before I played this disc I had been reviewing
another very recent Tavener release of two works from the
turbulently active and more avant-garde 1970s. They are Canciones
Españolas (1972) and Requiem for Father Malachy (1973)
on Lyrita SRCD.311. Their complexity and sometimes spiky fracture
is in contrast with these works from the last 18 years. Even
so Tavener evidently espoused melody even then although it
was through the prism of the times.
There are a number of Tavener requiems – four
in all. The others are Celtic Requiem (1969), Father
Malachy Requiem (1973), Akhmatova Requiem (1980)
and the just issued 2008 Requiem.
Commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company as
part of the 2008 European Capital of Culture programme the
Requiem is to be performed in a cruciform hall. The cello
needs to be placed in the centre with choir and brass in the
East, strings, solo soprano and tenor in the West and percussion
in the North and South. The audience should sit amid these
Josephine Knight’s trembling unadorned high-lying
cello introduces us to and also bids farewell to the 2008
Requiem. Knight’s line is touched in with the
tinkle of spare and gentle bells. At the start this is soon
joined by the pure-voiced Elin Manahan Thomas and the choir.
The choir and brass toll out a bell figure and are joined
by the impassioned tenor – here the mercilessly tested Andrew
Kennedy. The stratospheric Advaita Vedanta (trs. 3
and 5) raptly explores dizzy Allegri-like heights via the
choir and the rapt Thomas and Kennedy. This is followed by
the groaning and furious abrasion of the Dies Irae of
Kali’s Dance. Between short paragraphs of this dancing
fury the tenor and the serpentine cello and strings muse more
quietly on destruction. Towards the end of the prayer-like
Interlude (tr. 6) for orchestra and solo cello there
is a moment of bell-dominated animation that suggests inspiration
from Messiaen and Tippett. The final Ananda (tr. 7)
is lovely moment, hypnotic, ecstatic, unbombastic and spiritual.
It makes joyously irresistible use of the high registers of
the soprano, choir and cello in a fine gradient pulsing crescendo
and a moving decrescendo.
The least oriental work here is Eternal
Memory for cello and strings. It’s the oldest piece
here and the shortest. It is not at all holy minimalist but
in its ten minutes arches from and to an inward and reverential
melody recalling the chant at the start of Tchaikovsky’s 1812.
In between the work rises to an episode of Shostakovich-like
brutality which seems almost shameful by the side of its buttressing
More finely and vulnerably spun in gleaming
misty silver is the Mahāshakti for solo
violin, tam-tam and strings. This slow-blooming music is a
heartbeat away from the religious mysteries of Alan Hovhaness;
the tam-tam’s barely perceptible impacts underlines the reference.
It also has a harmonic softness that reminds me of the Vaughan
Williams Tallis and Lark and the tender Wenceslas
Chorale of Josef Suk. Ruth Palmer sustains the rapt atmosphere
– the unhurried arabesque; the modest yet confident invocation.
The composer’s notes are supportive but short on factual material.
Tavener here speaks through his music as sincere spiritual
melodist not minimalist.