First Hymn to the Mother of God
Song for Athene
Second Hymn to the Mother of God
Patricia Rozario (soprano)
City of London Sinfonia
Wednesday, June 23, 2004 St Paul's Cathedral, London
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
It has been about ten years since a London performance of John Tavener's Ultimos Ritos (at Westminster Cathedral, also conducted by Richard Hickox), the work composed in 1972, a large-scale cantata in all but name. 2004 sees the composer's 60th birthday, and this concert was an interesting opportunity to consider again both Tavener's style and, perhaps, his intentions, as this comparatively early work was set against what might be termed 'miniatures' of a more recent vintage.
It is generally recognised that a 'sea-change' occurred in Tavener's style in The Protecting Veil (1989) with the influence of the Orthodox Church manifesting itself through contemplative music specifically religious in character and intent. In fact, his conversion to the Orthodox Church occurred in 1977, and the Two Hymns to the Mother of God, dating from 1985, are examples of Tavener making use of the Slavic musical tradition.
The harmonic writing could come straight out of an Orthodox chant, although Tavener does not always disguise or does not choose to his Anglican roots. The two Hymns framed performances of The Lamb, a carol from 1982 that has become a perennial favourite, and A Song for Athene, from 1993, which might well be re-titled 'A Song for Diana' as it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, winning the composer
All these pieces are designed for liturgical use and having all four one after the other does emphasise a degree of 'sameness'; their heart-on-sleeve religiosity and, frankly, sentiment does tend to pall and one wonders whether the cloaking of such compositions in a veil (no pun intended) of supposedly genuine spirituality does not, in fact, conceal a certain paucity of a purely musical imagination.
The BBC Singers gave accurate renderings, but the words were indistinct (and not provided in the programme), and the scale of St Paul's was not ideally suited to these essentially intimate utterances, especially when traffic and other external noises intruded. One curiosity was the use of the organ in A Song for Athene which, as I understand it, was conceived as a cappella.
A massive cluster-chord on the organ is the main feature at the start of Ultimos Ritos, which initiates a five-part work that meditates on the Crucifixion. The third movement represents Christ on the Cross and, indeed, contains only one word: Jesus (albeit in fifty languages). The movements surrounding this central one symbolise the Cross.
In a work that has such specific symbolism, one really needs to know in some detail what it is 'about'. There were no detailed notes, and given that most of the text is in languages other than English, a bare translation proved insufficient to aid comprehension. Each of the movements contains some striking, if not arresting sonorities the opening chord, the offstage trumpets in the second movement (placed, in this performance, in the Whispering Gallery), the murmurs and mutterings of the name of Jesus, and the final subsuming of Tavener's music by the Crucifixus movement from Bach's B minor Mass.
But I was struck, not having heard the work for a decade, by how ultimately superficial these ideas are. They almost strike one as being mere 'effects', and much of the instrumental and vocal writing leans heavily on clichés from the 1960s, particularly from the works of Ligeti, Penderecki and Berio. The latter's 'close harmony' vocal writing in his Sinfonia seemed to have found a very definite place in Tavener's vocabulary, and the 'shocks' of some of the choral outbursts of Penderecki's St Luke Passion also found a home in Ultimos Ritos.
And each of the movements particularly the second and third feels too long. Maybe that was inherent in this spacious performance which, to give due credit, was generally extremely fine and did the piece justice. The varied 'happenings' of the first movement such as the horns calling from independent locations, the recorders merrily going their own way and the jagged choral and orchestral staccatos all made an impact of their own kind. Similarly, the widely spaced timpani explosions of the second movement were undeniably dramatic. The aforementioned gallery-placed trumpets were spectacular though I wasn't completely sure of the accuracy of their fiendishly difficult 'calls', and it was a pity that one stray player seemed to
anticipate his first entry.
Patricia Rozario added distinction in the distorted arpeggio-like figures on the name Jesus which interject during the third movement. The chorus's whispering and muttering creates a menacing effect which, I'm afraid, caused this increasingly cynical listener to recall the music for The Omen; though to be fair to Tavener, Jerry Goldsmith's distinguished score post-dates Ultimos Ritos by a few years, appearing in 1976.
In many ways, the final movement is the most effective when the fragmented chorus lines and the BBC Singers were superb throughout gradually recede until the taped music from Bach emerges like a benediction.
Richard Hickox directed his forces purposefully, though I must mention the behaviour of two of the trumpeters who were giggling and whispering to one another. As they were within direct sight of
both the conductor and the composer, who was sitting in the audience, this must have been off-putting, to say the least.
Finally, however, there was an inescapable impression that however arresting momentary ideas are, they fail to form a coherent whole. And in spite of the intention to create an ostensible religious experience, as a musical edifice, John Tavener's Ultimos Ritos like so much of his output is
ultimately built on pretty shaky foundations and cannot wholly escape being labelled pretentious'.