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Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013)
No longer mourn for me
Preces and Responses arr. eight cellos (2013) [12:19]
The death of Ivan Ilyich (2013) [27:05]
Mahámátar (2013) [15:48]
Popule meus (2010) [12:19]
No longer mourn for me arr. eight cellos (2013) [4:26]
Steven Isserlis (cello), Matthew Rose (bass), Abi Sampa (Sufi singer)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Omer Meir Wellber
Rec. September 2017 at Balliol College Chapel, Oxford and December 2019 at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Text included
HYPERION CDA68246 [71:57]

Among the general public Tavener is best-known for his Song for Athene, a choral work which was performed – though not premičred – at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. However, among the more specialist musical public, an important work in his wider recognition was The Protecting Veil, an extended concertante work for solo cello and strings, which was premiered in 1989 with the cellist Steven Isserlis as the soloist and subsequently recorded by him. Isserlis maintained his relationship with Tavener over many years, and took the solo role on those works he wrote which required it. We have here a collection of late works featuring the cello; Isserlis was the driving force behind this programme. There are three important original works, The death of Ivan Ilyich, Mahámátar and Popule meus, and two arrangements.

The death of Ivan Ilyich is a short story by Tolstoy which presents the last moments of a dying man. This is set for a bass voice with a very wide compass and an ensemble consisting of a solo cello, two trombones, percussion and strings. It was inspired by the death of Isserlis’ wife Pauline; the composer himself had also been very ill at the time. This is music of extreme anguish, with instrumental passages intervening between the vocal ones. The effect reminded me of Stravinsky’s late cantatas, such as A sermon, a narrative and a prayer, but it is a work too extreme to hear often.

Mahámátar is a strange piece, originally intended for a film about pilgrims. The title refers to the Great Mother in Sanskrit, who is identified by the composer with the Virgin Mary in her role as Theotokos (God-bearer). The solo cello repeats a chant and is accompanied by an ensemble of tubular bells and strings, which are muted – and by two other wordless vocal contributions. One is a boys’ choir, heard from a distance. The other is a female voice from the Sufi singing tradition, taken here by Abi Sampa. This role is improvised, taking its lead from the cello line. I have to say that I don’t think this idea works: the solo female singer, though obviously working with great assurance in her own idiom, does not really fit with the Western music of the rest of the ensemble and to me sounds redundant.

The composer wrote that Popule meus was ‘a Universalist contemplation of the wholesale rejection of God by modern man.’ It was inspired by the Improperia, or Reproaches, sung at the Good Friday liturgy during the Veneration of the Cross. They consist of a series of antiphons and responses detailing Christ’s actions and how they were received. In Tavener’s piece the solo cello represents Christ while the timpani represent man’s rejection. The pattern of alternations mirrors that of the vocal text. The timpani become increasingly violent while the solo cello and strings remain still and serene.

The disc is filled out with two vocal works, arranged by Isserlis for an ensemble of eight cellos. Preces and Responses are the petitions sung antiphonally towards the end of Anglican Morning and Evening Prayer. It was the composer’s last work. The original has been recorded by Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir on another Hyperion disc. The arrangement, though attractive enough, is rather obviously an arrangement of a vocal work best heard in its original version. I feel much the same about the last work here, No longer mourn for me, from which the whole disc takes its title. This is the opening line of a Shakespeare sonnet, one of a set of three written for the South Iceland Chamber Choir. Again, the original is hauntingly beautiful while the cello arrangement is no more than pleasant.

Isserlis’ playing is throughout eloquent and expressive and the other soloists as also the players from the Philharmonia Orchestra are as dedicated as one could wish. The recordings, though made in two locations at different dates, match well and have the warmth and bloom which Tavener’s music needs. The booklet contains the words of Ivan Ilyich and this is a quality production. It is of more specialised appeal than some of Tavener’s music and is really more for the committed fan than the general music-lover.

Stephen Barber

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