Tavener at 60

Schuon Hymnen [UK premiere]
Pratirúpa [World premiere]
Supernatural Songs [London premiere]
The Lamb
Butterfly Dreams [London premiere]
Birthday Sleep

Stephen Layton

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

English Chamber Orchestra
Ralf Gothóni (piano)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 19 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

I started this year by attending the first concert to celebrate Sir John Tavener’s 60th-birthday (Choir of New College Oxford et al at St John’s Smith Square), so it was aptly symmetrical to attend another as the year draws to its close. Sir John, by his own self-admission, has become increasingly syncretic in his spiritual outlook over the last few years, resulting in a multiplicity of philosophical and musical influences, from Islam and Hinduism to the sun worship of the Apache. This concert explored the effects of those influences on Tavener’s writing since 2002.

The a cappella work “Schuon Hymnen”, which began the evening, is a setting of poetry by the late Swiss philosopher and Sufi mystic Frihjof Schuon; Tavener has added an Arabic salutation to Mary and a quotation from the “Song of Songs”. The piece is a ‘Marian’ hymn, a celebration of the eternal woman and the essentially sacred nature of the erotic. The work consists of tutti sections interspersed with a refrain for solo male voice (“Clothed with the Sun Alone”), which acts as a mantra and continually refreshes the variously configured choral sections; the piece ends with a luminous chord, in which high-lying soprano parts predominate. The performance was less than satisfactory: the choir took almost the entire work to warm up, with scrappy entries and some throaty singing from the soloists.

Pratirúpa, commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra and Music Society, is a contemplative piece for piano and string orchestra of some 45 minutes duration. The title comes from the Sanskrit for ‘reflection’, the key to the piece, in which long string lines, accompanied by piano arpeggios, and Mozart-inspired melodic passages are periodically ‘awakened’ by fiercely energetic outbursts in which a Samavedic rhythm is played at the extremes of the keyboard before chromatic scales in contrary motion bring it the middle registers. The various structures re-sound and reflect each other, while the listener is invited to reflect on the eternal nature of God. Ralf Gothóni played the solo part and conducted a fine performance of a difficult work; difficult in the sense that Tavener’s writing here, if taken the wrong way, can sound terribly mawkish at best and like second-rate Messiaen at worst.

“Supernatural Songs”, scored for counter-tenor or mezzo-soprano, strings, pow-wow drum (a percussion instrument of Native American origin) and Hindu temple bowl, is a setting of texts largely by W.B. Yeats. Many influences are easily detected, from the rhythms and melismatic ornaments of the Middle East to the very English use of modes as typified by Vaughan Williams. Sarah Connolly, who stood in for an indisposed Susan Graham, gave a very fine performance; her rich, steady mezzo gracing both the long phrases and more energetic passages with a sensuous clarity well suited to Yeats’s poetry.

Stephen Layton conducted, just as he did the three unaccompanied choral works that concluded the evening, in which the members of Polyphony redeemed themselves with beautiful, controlled performances. “The Lamb”, a setting of William Blake’s poem of the same title, was perfect, its rigorous palindromic sections set off like crystal against the richly harmonised verses. “Butterfly Dreams”, a setting of texts chosen by Alan Barret from Chinese, Japanese, European and American Indian sources, was probably the stand-out performance of the evening, with Tavener’s filigree patterns contrasted beautifully with the work’s more strident sections. “Birthday Sleep”, a setting of words by Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, bade us goodnight with glowing harmonies spiced by some unusual progressions. Sir John was present and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause with his usual grace.

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