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John TAVENER (1944-2013)
The Protecting Veil [46:11]
Mother and Child [7:06]
Pandit Sultan KHAN (1940-2011)
The Song of Separation and Waiting [11:28]
W B Yeates (1865-1939): “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” [0:38]; “The Mother of God” [1:04]
Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998): World Wheel XXVII: “I heard the gypsy’s violin play” [1:00]
Julie Christie, Olwyn Fouéré (readers)
Sukhvinder Singh (table)
Sinfonietta Riga/Matthew Barley (cello)
rec. 2017/18, Petruskyrkan, Stocksund, Sweden; Anglican Church, Riga, Latvia

As an avid concert-goer now for the best part of 60 years, there are inevitably performances which, at the time, seemed so remarkable that they have lodged firmly in the memory to the extent that they sometimes seem as if they took place only last week. One of those was the premiere at the BBC Proms of Tavener’s remarkable work for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that astonishing and unforgettable musical occasion, and to mark this significant milestone in a work which has now become something of core repertory while never having lost even a hint of the mesmerising magic which was such a powerful force at the first performance, Matthew Barley has recorded it with Sinfonietta Riga.

There have been several fine recordings of the work ever since Steven Isserlis, who had given the Proms premiere on 4th September 1989, released his Virgin Classics (now on Erato) recording with the London Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, but Matthew Barley’s recording is special on two counts. Firstly, he directs the orchestra himself – something of a major feat considering the cellist has no real break during the entire 45-minute duration of the work. And secondly, instead of the customary coupling with other Tavener works or associated pieces for cello, Barley places it within the context of poems which were known to be favourites of Tavener read by Julie Christie and Olwyn Fouéré. Most perceptively of all, he includes a piece of Indian music featuring the noted tabla player Sukhvinder ‘Pinky’ Singh. While Tavener was known to have a strong interest in Indian music, the juxtaposition of this piece and The Protecting Veil shows just how powerfully Tavener was influenced by Indian music. The result is a recording which, rather than merely presenting a significant repertory work, sets it in a luminous and illuminating backdrop.

The Daily Telegraph once described The Protecting Veil as being “typical of the kind of music that has struck a chord with the public. Slow, melodic, meditative, steeped in the ritual of the Orthodox Church”. And so it is. But Barley’s performance brings something else to it. It brings an almost chamber-like intimacy to it, which is the direct result of his performing without a conductor. There is a particularly close and personal relationship between Sinfonietta Riga and Barley, which makes the moments of “transcendent” and “awesome majesty” (Tavener’s own words) not just sound riveting but feel intensely credible as well. This is very much Barley’s own interpretation of the work, and the orchestra becomes an integral part of it – something which does not quite happen the same way when there is a third party overseeing the totality of the performance. I still have a strong predilection for the Isserlis/Rozhdestvensky recording based, perhaps, on personal sentiment rather than dispassionate musical judgement, but I suspect those who come across the work for the first time via this latest release, will not find another performance out there which would give them quite the same feeling of intensity and spiritual uplift.

Add to that Barley’s own remarkably insightful booklet notes and a ravishing recording from Signum Classics, and you have something very special indeed.

But it does not end there. Beyond the readings there are two musical complements to this recording of The Protecting Veil. Mother and Child is given in an arrangement by Barley himself which takes the original choral work (commissioned in 2003 by Tenebrae) and sets it wordlessly for cello and strings, incorporating into it some unedited cello improvisations. Without the words we can, perhaps, recognise in this shimmering, mystical music a powerful Indian influence, which is reinforced by the remote and distant effect of cello and tabla in a haunting account of The Song of Separation and Waiting which, Barley informs us, was recorded in a single uninterrupted take.

Marc Rochester

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