Peter Maxwell Davies
Taverner – Opera in two acts to a libretto by the composer
John Taverner – Martyn Hill
Jester – David Wilson-Johnson
King / Archangel Michael / Captain – Stephen Richardson
Rose Parrowe / Virgin Mary – Fiona Kimm Priest / God – Michael Chance
White Abbot – Quentin Hayes
Richard Taverner – Peter Sidhom
Cardinal / Archbishop – Stuart Kale
First Monk / Archangel Gabriel – John Graham Hall
Second Monk / Antichrist – Peter Hall
Boy – Tom Jackman

Fretwork
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
London Voices
New London Children’s Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Recorded 5-14 December 1996 in Studios 1 & 2, BBC Maida Vale, London
CD No: NMC D157 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes
Reviewed: December 2009
Along with its satellite Second Taverner Fantasia for orchestra, the opera “Taverner” is the magnum opus of what Peter Maxwell Davies thinks of as his apprenticeship period. Since the early 1950s he had been steadily and painstakingly acquiring the groundings of a rigorous compositional technique. The works of this period, up to around 1965, formerly had a reputation for being forbiddingly dry and ascetic. However, latter-day revivals of these works have revealed that, as with the exactly contemporaneous late work of Stravinsky, music of chiselled beauty lay behind the sometimes clunky surfaces the early performers tended to display as they struggled with a radically new musical language. The Second Fantasia has been decisively rehabilitated in this fashion in recent years, not least in the new recording released a few years ago on the composer’s tragically defunct on-line recording ‘label’, maxopus. Finally, with this magnificent NMC release, it is the turn of the opera itself.
“Taverner” is the crucible into which Maxwell Davies poured everything he had learned up to that point about the craft of composition, from functional harmony to multi-layered counterpoint, from the proliferation of surface detail to the generation of long spans of musical architecture. And his chosen subject matter, the self-betrayal of a creative artist (and man), gave him a real-life analogue for the compositional process of ‘permanent transformation’ which he had by that time brought to early perfection. He based his libretto (meticulously researched from historical sources in the Firestone Library of Princeton University during a two-year stint there in the Music Department) on what was believed at the time to be factually accurate records of the composer John Taverner’s life before and after the inception of the English Reformation, although subsequent scholarship has proved some of these to be wrong. In the first act of the opera, Taverner is a persecuted Lutheran. The second act, a ‘negative’ parody of the first, casts a converted Protestant Taverner as a rabid persecutor of Catholics, but at the very end self-aware of the death of his soul.
In a typically lucid commentary by Stephen Pruslin in the booklet, he convincingly argues that the dramaturgy of “Taverner” knowingly references a number of works from the core operatic tradition, including “Don Giovanni”, “The Magic Flute”, “Don Carlos”, “Boris Godunov” and “Khovanshchina”, to which I would add (in the two courtroom scenes) the ‘Prologue’ to “Peter Grimes”. (Thematically it also looks forward to other dramatic works of Maxwell Davies’s, not least “The Martyrdom of St Magnus” and “Resurrection”.) This is undoubtedly an opera conceived on the grand scale with many of the attendant trappings such as choral tableaux, contrasting intimate scenes, grand entrances and exits, elaborate lighting and stage effects, on-stage bands and the like. Maxwell Davies was certainly going for broke in his first stage work.
In another essay in the booklet, Bayan Northcott draws attention to the new relevance the subject matter has to an audience today with the “world-wide rise of religious fundamentalism” and consumerist market forces. This can hardly be denied; a palpable sense of burning urgency leaps from the recording, something I do not recall from the 1983 Covent Garden revival of the 1972 premiere (I attended every performance in the run). In that sense, Northcott proposes the work as a “classic” and few listeners to this recording will demur.
“Taverner” has many things going for it but I think the key to its success as music-drama is the vividness of its characterisation, which is the very life-blood of opera. Whilst the overall tenor of the writing is a white-hot state of constant flux, it easily encompasses specific definition when required by the libretto – witness the decadent harmonic insinuations of the corrupt, drunken Priest or the cool, harp-flecked music associated with Taverner’s mistress Rose Parrowe. Each of the four scenes in the two acts (the second mirroring the first, although not entirely schematically) has its own distinct soundworld, for instance the fiercely penitential choral writing in the chapel scenes and the distorted Tudor music on period instruments in the throne-room scenes. The burning at the stake of the White Abbott in the final scene unfolds over a string threnody of Mahlerian weight, lifted directly from the penultimate movement of the Second Fantasia. But the sucker punch has already been dealt at the end of the previous scene, the sudden burst of the ‘real’ Taverner Benedictus from the defiant monks in the chapel – a moment of overwhelming artistic truth. The second act in general, calculatedly faster and tauter than the first act, is packed with musical incident of the highest order.
It’s hard to know where to start in praising this recording. It was made as long ago as 1996 as a studio recording at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale studio and broadcast on Radio 3 the following year. Since then the tape has languished in the archives while NMC awaited the hopeful arrival of an ‘angel’ to fund the costly release. I have no information on the nature or identity of said angel but plainly NMC has found suitable funding from somewhere and praise-be whoever or whatever it is.
Oliver Knussen has assembled a stunning cross-section of the finest vocal talents working in Britain at the time of the recording, some of them doubling in multiple roles. In the title role, Martyn Hill audibly relishes the opportunity of portraying his character as a pious victim in the first act and a terrifying zealot in the second. Stephen Richardson is a stentorian King (the libretto identifies neither Henry VIII nor Cardinal Wolsey by name) and elsewhere Archangel Michael and Captain. Stuart Kale is at once imposing and insipid as the Cardinal. The role of White Abbott also gives Quentin Hayes the opportunity to play aggressor and victim over the two acts and he nails both. The stalwart David Wilson-Johnson steals his scenes as Jester (Death), as he should. The smaller parts are uniformly well-taken, from Fiona Kimm’s bell-like Rose Parrowe to Michael Chance’s startling Priest. Mention should also be made of Tom Jackman who acquits himself exceedingly well in the part of the Boy, whose vocal writing is as thorny as the adult parts.
Knussen draws a performance of exceptional power and refinement from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, supported by localised contributions from Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts and Stephen Pruslin on regal (the latter sounding a little under-recorded). The members of London Voices impress with their baleful, dark tones in the chapel scenes and frighteningly clipped delivery as the Council in the courtroom scenes. There is really nothing to fault anywhere (although those of us whose Latin ‘O level’ is a distant memory could wish that the many passages in Latin had been translated in the booklet).
In 2009, NMC has given Max the best 75th-birthday present he could have wished for. This is a landmark recording of a landmark opera.

 

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