John TAVENER (b.1944)
We shall see Him as He is (1990)
Patricia Rozario (soprano), John Mark Ainsley, Andrew Murgatroyd (tenor)
BBC National Chorus of Wales, Britten Singers, Chester Festival Chorus
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Eis Thánaton - Ode to Death (1986)
Patricia Rozario (soprano), Stephen Richardson (bass)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Theophany (for pre-recorded tape and orchestra, 1992/3)
Jeremy Birchall (male voices) and Margaret Feaviour (female voices)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1992-1994. DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations.
CHANDOS 241-42 [61:08 + 67:06]
Richard Hickox died suddenly in November 2008; he was only sixty years old. We shall never know how many more discs he might have set down for Chandos had he lived longer - he was just starting a Holst series at the time of his death - but he left an extensive discography behind him, including a great deal of repertoire that, in all probability, no other conductor would have tackled. Chandos are now delving back into their catalogue for a series of reissues under the collective title, The Hickox Legacy. This collection of three works by Sir John Tavener inaugurated the series.
We Shall See Him as He Is was commissioned to mark the 900th anniversary of Chester Cathedral. This recording was made at the Proms a few days after the première of the work. The first performance took place in Chester Cathedral during a concert at which I was present. In brief, the subtitle, ‘Ikon of the Beloved’, refers to St John, Christ’s beloved disciple, and the text, assembled by Tavener’s long-time muse, the late Mother Thekla, records a number of incidents in Christ’s life, as recollected by John. The work is divided into thirteen movements, eleven of which are ikons. The principal solo tenor (John Mark Ainsley) takes the role of St. John; the other two soloists make much briefer appearances. As well as the three soloists the score calls for a chorus, within which there is also a semi-chorus, and an orchestra of strings, two trumpets, two sets of timpani and organ.
As Andrew Burn says in his very useful notes, the work contains little by way of conventional musical development. Instead “the ideas are static and ritualistic, varied primarily through subtle changes of instrumental or choral scoring.” I recall that the piece made a strong impression on me at its première and I bought the recording as soon as it came out. However, I haven’t listened to it in a very long time and that, of itself, may say something. On one level We Shall See Him as He Is is impressive. Tavener handles his forces with imagination; at one moment we may be hearing a monumental climax and the next the textures have been pared back to the bone to produce a moment of rapt calm. However, coming back to it after a long gap I found myself becoming a bit impatient with the extent to which it relies on a deliberately limited amount of musical material. I’d readily admit, however, that this may be a superficial reaction; there’s no doubt of the depth or sincerity of thought - and belief - behind the music.
The performance itself is stunning. I’m sure that it helped that the performance was the second that these performers had given within the space of about five days. Furthermore, the music makes an ideal effect in the spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. John Mark Ainsley is superb in his quasi-Evangelist role. I bet he sings for some 70% of the work’s duration so it’s a feat of stamina but Ainsley is also tremendously eloquent and authoritative. Tavener instructs his tenor to sing in a Byzantine style so much of the part is declamatory in nature and often microtones are deployed. Patricia Rozario, a renowned exponent of Tavener’s music appears as the Samaritan woman in Ikon VI and her part explores a truly fearsome vocal compass which she negotiates masterfully. Andrew Murgatroyd’s role is less prominent; he sings in Ikon VIII and he does well. The choirs and orchestra are fervent in their efforts and under the sure-footed and committed direction of Richard Hickox it’s hard to imagine that the work could have received stronger advocacy than this. The Chandos engineering team of Ralph Couzens and Richard Smoker have recorded the work extremely successfully, providing sound that is at once spacious yet has impact. Though the performance was given at the Proms, where the audiences are not always the quietest, I wasn’t conscious of intrusive off-stage noises and after the piece has achieved its ultra-soft conclusion there is, mercifully, no applause.
I’d not previously heard the other two recordings. Eis Thanaton was the work through which Tavener got back to composing after the shock of the death of his mother. It sets, in the original language, the words - in Greek - of Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869). In the poem a grieving son - the bass - visits the grave of his mother. The first of the work’s three sections is a monologue for the son in which he laments his late mother. In the second section the spirit of the mother - the soprano - appears to him and assures him of her happiness in the afterlife. The final section is a dialogue between the two but here Tavener departs from the poem, assigning to the soprano the identity of the Mother of God and her words are from the Orthodox burial service. Each singer is accompanied by a separate and very differently comprised instrumental group. Andrew Burn says that the work was devised as either a semi-concert or semi-staged work. Once more, it’s a piece that’s essentially slow moving and where the musical material is not significantly developed.
The opening monologue is dark and very bleak in tone. The mother’s music, with a much more transparent accompaniment, is more radiant and reassuring. Despite the mother’s positive message, I don’t feel that the son’s demeanour lightens very much in the closing section. This is a profoundly serious work and clearly was a way by which the composer worked through some of his sense of extreme personal loss. I rather think that this is a work that needs a visual element, even simply that of seeing the performers in a concert environment, if it’s to make its full effect.
Theophany was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Richard Hickox conducted them in the première in 1994 in a concert that marked the opening of The Anvil concert hall in Basingstoke. An important element is a pre-recorded tape on which Jeremy Birchall sings the Greek words that mean ‘I am’. In a booklet note Birchall describes the complicated work he undertook to make the tape. Yet again, much of the score proceeds slowly and the work relies a great deal on sonority and unusual colours to make its effect. Undoubtedly there are some intriguing and potent sonorities but I have to admit that I felt the work was over-long. After a while, other than being interested in the sounds that were being made, I found the piece not very compelling.
I came away from this set of discs with the feeling that John Tavener’s music is at its best when he’s operating on a fairly small canvass - some of his small-scale choral pieces are splendid. However, I think one has to be very much in tune with his style and idiom if one is fully to appreciate his larger scores. If you subscribe to his vision then these three scores - and We Shall See Him as He Is in particular - can fairly be described as visionary. While there may be doubts over the music there can be no doubt as to the excellence and commitment of all three performances on this pair of discs. The recorded sound and booklet are up to the usual very high Chandos standards.
Three major Tavener scores powerfully advocated by Richard Hickox.
see also download review by Brian Wilson