John Tavener at 60

Written by: Colin Anderson

Stephen Layton, conductor of Polyphony, looks forward to the John Tavener Birthday Concert at the Barbican Hall on 19 November…

Mention composer John Tavener and the reaction can be one of indifference, maybe hostility, or an exalted response, Tavener perceived as an icon. He’s billed as one of today’s most successful living composers. On the 19th, in the Barbican Hall, Stephen Layton conducts the choral group Polyphony in a Tavener 60th birthday concert. Stephen conducted the premiere of Tavener’s all-night The Veil of the Temple; he responds that “it depends how you define success. In terms of the public take-up of his music, why is it that so many people want to hear his music? The answer is straightforward: his music has simplicity, directness and spirituality, all of which appeals to a wider dimension of person than just the musician. People going to a concert, who want to listen to music, are seeking something, an answer, something to console, and Tavener’s music provides that sustenance to a wider public.”

Certainly Tavener’s short choral pieces are exquisite, but longer works, and The Veil of the Temple, maybe require a different approach to appreciate their duration and repetition, one beyond the purely musical. “Yes, you do. If the prime motivation of writing the music is God sent in some form then that’s the composer’s belief, his concept of God. If he decides that the way to do that is through repeated mantra-chanting in religious cultures other than our own, then he’s looking at the religious ritualistic side of things and putting it into music, but that doesn’t necessarily stand up if you’re comparing it with a serial tone-row and doing an analysis of it and looking at it in a completely clinical twentieth-century way of writing music. We don’t have to say that it’s always music; something like The Veil of the Temple in its all-night version is far more like a semi-liturgical religious event with music at the centre but with lights, space and movement.”

So the listener sympathetic to religious ceremony will get more from one of Tavener’s large-scale works than the person steeped only in Western classical music? “I think I could go with that but I would add that having worked on The Veil of the Temple and discovered its structure, which is a fairly major job, I reckon if I played you highlights from that piece, a five-minute anthem, you’d say it’s just as beautiful as one of the miniatures on the CD. Tavener’s success is putting these miniatures together with inevitability; so if you’re staying up all night you’re part of an experience of a ritual of keeping the watch.”

The CD of short Tavener choral works that Stephen mentions is new on Hyperion (CDA67475), and some will be heard at the Barbican concert. In terms of realising them, Stephen is “convinced that if Tavener’s music is not performed absolutely A-double-plus it can completely fall. Some of the music is painfully simple but is fiendish to tune and knackering to sing; it’s some of the hardest stuff to sing really well, and unless every damn note is loved, adored and hallowed, it just won’t work. Tavener’s whole premise is that there is a beauty in the perfection of the simple and I strive for this absolutely gorgeous, perfect translucent sound that gives the music integrity. Tavener cannot be technically flawed in performance.”

Tavener himself is conducting The Lamb at the Barbican concert. “We’ve discussed the problems of performing his music. It’s cruel and difficult, and it’s got to be bloody brilliant. He responds, ‘Oh, do you think so’.” Also in the concert is Tavener’s new piano concerto, Pratrirupa, which Ralf Góthoni will play and conduct, the English Chamber Orchestra also taking part in Tavener’s Supernatural Songs, which features Susan Graham. “These are W.B Yeats settings. Tavener has a strong affinity to Yeats because he reflects a change of metaphysical direction, not a move away from Christianity but the revelation that the same essential truths lie behind the forms of all great religious traditions. There are nine songs.” Stephen Layton describes this Tavener birthday concert as “putting your hands into the bag of sweets from his latest period.”

  • Concert on 19 November, Barbican Hall
  • Barbican
  • Hyperion
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 17 November and is reproduced here with permission

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