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John TAVENER (1944-2013)
Missa Wellensis (2013) [17:04]
The Lord’s Prayer (1984) [2:19]
Love bade me welcome (1985)[6:02]
Preces and Responses. Part One (2013) [2:07]
Psalm 121: I Will Lift up Mine Eyes unto the Hills (1989) [5:17]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ (1986) [11:06]
Preces and Responses. Part Two (2013) [9:39]
Song for Athene (1993) [6:42]
Prayer for the healing of the sick (1999) [9:00]
They are all gone into the world of light (2011) [3:43]
Preces and Responses. Final Responses (2013) [0:44]
Choir of Wells Cathedral/Mathew Owens
rec. 29-30 April, 6-7 May 2015, Wells Cathedral
Texts included

In his very useful notes Andrew Stewart mentions that after surviving a major heart attack in 2007 Sir John Tavener suffered a dual crisis of faith and compositional confidence. As a result it was not until 2010 that he resumed composition but then he was inspired to compose over 20 works before his death in November 2013. All of these works were on a fairly small scale; none was longer than 25 minutes. This album gives first recordings to two of the works in question.

These are the Missa Wellensis and the set of Preces and Responses, both commissioned by Wells Cathedral under their enlightened scheme for commissioning new church music which has been operating since 2006. Both new works were premiered on the same day, 18 May 2014, the Mass at morning Eucharist and the Preces and Responses at Evensong. Sadly, Tavener did not live to hear these compositions in performance. Mathew Owens has had the excellent idea of compiling a programme for this CD which replicates the services of Eucharist and Evensong. So, after the Mass Taverner’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer is sung and then Love bade me welcome functions as a Communion motet. The remainder of the programme is the Evensong portion including a ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ and the very well-known Song for Athene as the anthem. Prayer for the healing of the sick takes the place of spoken prayers and They are all gone into the world of light functions as the final benediction. This is an imaginative way of presenting the music and it seems sensible to consider the music in the order in which it’s heard.

The Mass is scored for double choir and from the details on the web site of Tavener’s publishers, Chesters, it seems that each choir divides into eight parts for at least some of the time. Apparently Tavener conceived it as a tribute to the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Tavener makes a lot of use of canons between the two choirs; sometimes the canons are half a bar apart, at other times there’s a full bar’s distance. I noticed the effect of that device most tellingly in the Gloria where often an intriguing blaze of sound is thereby created. That follows an often impassioned, spacious Kyrie – the central ‘Christe’ section is rather more introspective than the rest of the movement but no less tense. We find the music of the Kyrie reappearing in the ‘Hosanna’ section of the Sanctus. In the Agnus Dei a long angular melody is used. It’s sung twice by unison trebles and between those two renditions the tenors sing it in unison. At the end the whole choir joins in for ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and here Taverner quotes Victoria’s O vos omnes, one of the Spanish master’s Tenebrae Responsories. Tavener’s Mass is a fascinating, rewarding and frequently exciting composition and when you hear the movements in succession, rather than broken up as would be the case in a liturgical context, you realise how closely integrated the material is. It’s also a very succinct piece – there is no Credo. I should imagine it’s very challenging indeed to sing and the canonic writing will require great concertation on the part of all the singers. Mathew Owens and his choir give it a splendid debut recording.

The setting of The Lord’s Prayer is extracted from Tavener’s huge Orthodox Vigil Service of 1984. The words are set to slow-moving block harmony. Love bade me welcome sets lines by George Herbert – Vaughan Williams also set the poem as one of his Five Mystical Songs. It’s fascinating to hear this very English text set to Russian-style music.

Though we hear them, correctly, in three parts as would happen at Evensong I’ll consider the Preces and Responses all together. The setting is for double choir and I think it’s a very fine one. I like very much indeed the way Tavener puts his own very individual harmonic stamp on these centuries-old prayers yet he does so in a way that is utterly respectful of the tradition that goes back to the Tudor composers. At the same time as respecting that tradition he also advances it and I find it interesting that in his notes Andrew Stewart cites as comparators Kenneth Leighton and Gabriel Jackson for it seems that both of these have worked within and extended the tradition in just the same way as Tavener has. Like the Mass I think these Preces and Responses represent a very significant addition to the liturgical repertoire and I hope that other cathedral and collegiate choirs will emulate the enterprise of Wells Cathedral and take them up. The setting includes a lovely, restful setting of The Lord’s Prayer and after the last of the three sung prayers the serene five-fold ‘Amen’ is magical.

The setting of Psalm 121 was written to be sung in St Paul’s Cathedral. I suspect that venue influenced the way in which the music was written because many of the musical phrases are sonorous and majestic. Even more revealingly there are significant pauses after each line of music; these pauses would have allowed the music to resonate around the spacious acoustic of St Paul’s.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were composed for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and along with Song for Athene these are the best-known pieces on the disc. The Magnificat is quite unusual among English settings in that after each verse of the canticle Tavener inserts the refrain ‘Greater in honour than the cherubim …’ which is recited in the canticle during the Orthodox service of Matins. What I didn’t know until reading the notes is that these insertions were made at the suggestion of the then Dean of King’s College. What an inspired idea that was. I’ve heard Tavener’s canticles many times, both live and on disc, and this present performance is as fine as I can recall hearing. In the Magnificat the complex choral lines that accompany the vocal part which is singing the actual text come through with welcome clarity; often these subsidiary parts can be something of a mush. The slow moving, radiant Nunc dimittis is sung with expert control. Here the subdued opening and doxology, sung by the lower male voices, really impart a sense of bowing before the Deity.

Song for Athene is sung here as the choir’s tribute to the composer’s memory. They sing his authorised slight amendment to the words which make the piece appropriate for singing in memory of a man. This is a truly dedicated performance. Prayer for the healing of the sick is a setting of words, thrice repeated, from the Orthodox service of Holy Unction. Each time the words are sung the second half of the verse is given to the choir while the first half is sung by a solo bass. Here Christopher Sheldrake is an excellent soloist. The music is gentle and salving. They are all gone into the world of light is a setting of words by the seventeenth-century English poet, Henry Vaughan. Tavener wrote it after attending the funeral of the wife of the eminent heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub. The music strikes me as being suffused with light.

The more I’ve listened to John Tavener’s music over the years the more convinced I’ve become that, with one or two exceptions such as The Protecting Veil, he was at his best when writing on a fairly small scale. All the pieces here fall into that category; all are extremely effective and I’m particularly impressed by the two new works.

Mathew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir have built a very strong reputation, not just for the quality of their singing but also for their enterprise in commissioning significant new liturgical music. Both those traits are on display here. The performances are excellent and the recording captures the performances expertly.

This is an important disc both for admirers of Sir John Tavener’s music and for those who are interested in high quality new choral music.

John Quinn



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