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Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013)
God is with us 'A Christmas proclamation' (1987) [5:37]
Hymn to the Mother of God In you, O woman full of grace (No 1 of Two Hymns to the Mother of God) (1985) [2:55]
Love bade me welcome (1985) [5:23]
They are all gone into the world of light (2011) [4:29]
Annunciation How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? (1992) [5:39]
As one who has slept (1996) [8:12]
Song for Athene Alleluia (arr. Barry Rose) (1993) [5:52]
The Lamb Little lamb, who made thee? (arr. Barry Rose) (1982) [3:33]
The Lord's Prayer Our Father, who art in heaven (arr. Barry Rose) (1999) [2:42]
Angels Bright beings from the realm of light (1985) [8:02]
Five anthems from The Veil of the Temple (1992 rev. 2002) [17:31]
George Castle (organ)
Winchester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Lumsden
rec. 2018, Winchester Cathedral, UK
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68255 [70:03]

Although he wrote a number of larger works, some of them very fine, I have always felt that the heart of Tavener’s work has been in his shorter choral works intended for church choirs. Here we have a generous selection, performed by the choir of Winchester Cathedral, for which Tavener had a special feeling. He frequently attended there, and they gave a number of premieres of his work. Although the works here are very varied, they all show his intense spirituality, his fluency in writing for voices and a range of influences from orthodox chant to Stravinsky and Messiaen.

The original cathedral choir consisted of boys and men. This still continues and there is a black-and-white photograph of them in the booklet. Since 1999 there has also been a girls’ choir and there is a colour photograph of them in the back of the disc. This disc draws on both of them, in various combinations, helpfully listed in the booklet. The boys and girls sing together, without the men, in three numbers: The Lamb, perhaps, Tavener’s best-known single work, which was actually written for Winchester, the Song for Athene and The Lord’s Prayer. These versions were arranged by Barry Rose for high voices, so these arrangements may well be of interest who already know these works in their standard versions.

The girls get another outing, this time with the men, in Angels, the title work of this collection. This was written for a local church choir, so the vocal writing is quite straightforward, but the organ has quite Messiaenic shimmerings and flickerings over and round them.

Most of the other numbers are based on the Orthodox liturgy, in English, as Tavener was a convert to that church, and sung by the boys and men. Strict Orthodox thinking does not allow accompaniment to choral singing, but Tavener did not restrict himself in this way, so the organ is used several times, for example in the opening God is with us. It has thrilling entries in foreign keys towards the end of the Hymn to the Mother of God (a title of the Virgin Mary since the third century, theotokos in Greek) and supports the voices in several other numbers.

Sometimes Tavener took his inspiration from English poetry. Love bade me welcome sets one of George Herbert’s finest poems, the culmination of his work The Temple, for unaccompanied choir with a chant-like melody with a kind of modal sideslip at the end. This is followed, very appropriately, by a setting of a poem, or rather part of it, by Herbert’s disciple Henry Vaughan, They are all gone into the world of light. This is a particularly beautiful work, with shifting tonalities and a final resolution in the major.

Of particular interest are the five anthems from The Veil of the Temple. In its original form this work lasted seven hours; a shorter concert version has been recorded by Stephen Layton on RCA (review review). I think this may be the first appearance of these five anthems as stand-alone items. They are each quite short. You mantle yourself in light is based on chant. Mother of God has a lovely melody. What God is and Awed by the beauty are both quiet and intense and O Mary Theotokos is dance-like. I hope these are widely taken up.

I have left to the last the two numbers which use the girls together with the boys and men. These are Annunciation and As one who slept. Annunciation was written for Westminster Abbey, and the opening entry, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man,’ from Luke’s gospel, was sung from high up, while the main choir responded with the repeated ‘Hail.’ This antiphonal effect is well captured here.

As one who has slept is the longest work here, again using a short and simple text, but intensely atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful. I find this the finest work on the disc.

The Winchester team is an experienced one and they do this music proud. I should also recognize the idiomatic and appropriate organ playing of George Castle. The excellent booklet notes are by Martin Neary, who was himself at one time organist and director of music at Winchester, and whose understanding of Tavener’s music was commended by the composer. The cathedral is vast, but the engineers have secured good sound. Full texts are included. Even if you already have discs of Tavener’s choral music you should consider this.

Stephen Barber

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