Tavener Kaleidoscopes

Serenade in D, K239 (Serenata notturna)Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings, Op.48
Kaleidoscopes [World premiere]

Britten Sinfonia
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 6 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

If nothing else, John Tavener’s Kaleidoscopes is a tour de force for its soloist, the oboist Nicholas Daniel. Tavener places him at the centre of an Orthodox Cross, which is formed by four string quartets (two double basses and a percussionist lurk in a corner) and the work hangs from his captivating, unearthly sound. He played almost continuously throughout the piece’s 40-minute duration, often in Tavener’s trademark, glacially sustained melodies, which wound slowly to the very top of the instrument’s compass.

Daniel’s heroic performance animated what is otherwise a rather pallid work. Tavener composed Kaleidoscopes as a homage to Mozart – the instrumentation is a hall-of-mirrors version of the Oboe Quartet (K470) – but imposes his own detached mysticism over Mozart’s engaged Enlightenment humanism. As the name suggests, Kaleidoscopes is a sequence of fragments which are continually reordered and recast; Tavener arranges them in four different ‘tonal zones’, punctuated by a ritualistic refrain. Mozartean quotations and gestures appear throughout as though preserved in amber; periodically, an elongated cadence or deep-frozen trill rises to the surface. Other recurring fragments include a melody of Britten-like sprightliness, and an eruption of violent atonal gestures in the strings.

But it is hard to shake the thought that there is too little substance to sustain the work’s length, and the effect of so much repetition is to smooth over such contrasts as there are. Where Mozart works through conflict and contradiction in his music, Tavener smothers it with a blanket of New Age blandness.

To open the concert the Britten Sinfonia under Daniel played Mozart’s Serenata notturna with great style. The serenade echoes the Baroque concerto grosso form by embedding a string quartet within a string orchestra, and it is a curious mixture of the intimate and the public; it is a lovely moment when the second movement passes from extrovert minuet into chamber-music trio. Matthew Elston’s leadership of both quartet and orchestra was vigorous and incisive. The programme was completed by Tchaikovsky’s familiar Serenade, which benefited from the Sinfonia’s spirited approach.

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