The Veil of the Temple

The Veil of the Temple

Patricia Rozario (soprano)

The Choir of the Temple Church

The Holst Singers
[Choral soloists: Katy Cooper & Rebecca Hickey (sopranos); Simon Wall & Nathan Vale (tenors); Thomas Guthrie & Andrew Rupp (baritones); Adrian Peacock & Jeremy Birchall (basses)]

Ian le Grice, James Vivian (Organ/Indian Harmonium)

Dirk Campbell (Duduk)

John Thurgood (Tibetan Horn)

Hugh Benson, Christopher Kassam, Robert Millett, Alex Mitchell, Yates Norton & Luca del Panta (percussion)

English Chamber Orchestra Brass

Ceri Sherlock – director
Stephen Layton – conductor
James Vivian – assistant conductor

[Performance began at 10 p.m. on 4 July and continued until 5 a.m. on the 5th]

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 July, 2003
Venue: The Temple Church – Promenade Relay to Inner Temple Gardens, City of London

This was the second performance of John Tavener’s epic work, of seven hours’ duration, to be performed at night, commissioned by The Temple Church. The performance in the church was relayed to Inner Temple Gardens to an audience prepared to brave the night air to experience what has been described as Tavener’s ’magnum opus’.

The sheer magnitude of the conception commands respect, as does the commitment – and stamina – of the assembled forces under the fervent advocacy of Stephen Layton.

Tavener has written of his wish to introduce Western listeners to the tradition of the Orthodox East where a service can last for hours, and of his own experience of attending nineteen-hour vigils in monasteries in Greece. In the latter case, the music is often anonymous and never composed by one individual.

In 1984, Tavener composed music for an Orthodox Vigil Service, of two hours’ duration. The Veil of the Temple, although explicitly ritualistic is not, ultimately, a liturgical act. Described by the composer as “Christian but universalist”, The Veil of the Temple makes references to the music, texts and traditions of other faiths, and the essentially Christian content is framed by initial allusions to Islam and concludes with a Hindu ’peace chant’.

Visually and musically suggesting a journey from darkness to light, the work is divided into eight parts, or ’cycles’, to use Tavener’s terminology, performed without a break.

The first seven are cumulative in character in that the texts and their settings are progressively expanded. Thus in Cycle I we have the first line of ’Our Father, which art in heaven’, and by Cycle VII the prayer is heard complete. In fact, this setting of the Lord’s Prayer was particularly striking. The text is heard in English, Greek and Church Slavonic, and the fervour of the Slavonic setting proved especially powerful.

Elsewhere, shorter phrases and prayers are chosen. Thus there was a good deal of repetition both within and between each cycle. Settings of ’Kyrie eleison’, and the translation ’Lord have mercy’ are reiterated in an almost mantra-like fashion, and so this music, over the course of the cycles, was heard very many times.

Cycles I-VII each begin with arresting verses set for solo soprano accompanied by a Duduk – an Armenian folk instrument somewhat akin to an oboe. These duets are poignant and affecting. Low drones – recalling Orthodox music – are a constant feature, and the word ’Logos’ (Word) is prominent and given heightened expression by a tenor soloist. Other prayers and phrases are in praise of the Virgin Mary, and the Beatitudes are declaimed in a quasi-chant like manner. Each of the first seven cycles concludes with an unaccompanied recitation of passages from St. John’s Gospel in Orthodox style. These are the most austere moments of the work.

Much of the time, the choral singing is supported by drones or chords on the organ, with the Tibetan Horn and gongs providing a link between the soprano’s introduction and the start of the choral sections. The overall pace of the music is slow and the cumulative effect of the musical repetitions lends weight to the ritualistic design.

Different vocal groupings and soloists afford contrast. One of the key features of the overall concept was the use of the actual building of The Temple Church. Singers were spatially separated and also distantly placed. The deployment of the forces in this manner recalled similar usage by Monteverdi.

The general ’flavour’ of the music is archaic in that it recalled the past, perhaps inevitably with its deliberate recollections of Orthodox and Byzantine traditions. On the other hand there are portions which betrayed Tavener’s heritage of the English Cathedral tradition, with reminiscences of Anglican chant and, at one point in the final Cycle, a phrase whose harmony would not be out of place emerging from the pen of Sir Arthur Sullivan wearing his sacred hat.

In any event, anyone frightened by excessive dissonance would have felt welcome, and honesty compels me to admit that after several hours of fundamentally diatonic music – of whatever ethno-musical origin – the effect was rather wearying and I began to hanker after something of the primal power that Tavener found in his Ultimos Ritos (1972) or the more questing luminosity of Ikon of Light (1984).

Cycle VIII – The Eschatology – focuses on Christ’s Resurrection, and Mary Magdalen’s recognition of Him as ’Ravouni’ – Master. The structure of this cycle is quite different, affording contrast to what had preceded it. And yet I felt a want of culmination. At this point – around 4.30 in the morning! – one really expected a peroration to sum everything up. In the text, there is the potential for some dramatic moments, and yet these were, in the main, eschewed for a continuation of the meditative character that had hitherto predominated. The quotation from Wagner’s Tristan when ’night’ is referred to seemed, in the context, quite incongruous.

The concluding ’Upanishad Hymn’ is described by Tavener as “monolithic, massive – and my answer to Parry’s Jerusalem!” and subsequently combined with a Shantih – a peace chant. Brass phrases add celebratory colour to this final section. On this occasion the choirs processed outside singing, and the ending rather fizzled out.

The performers were wholly admirable – from the collective choral singing, with confident semi-choruses and soloists – to the wide-ranging and ecstatic outpourings from the astonishing Patricia Rozario. Stephen Layton had evidently inspired all to give of their very best and as far as I could tell this was a well-nigh-flawless performance, with only one fluffed soprano choral entry being apparent.

As an experience, it was a remarkable one and yet I cannot refrain from wondering about the motivation for the whole enterprise. Tavener is apparently able to tap into a perceived desire for what I suppose must be described as ’spiritually-based’ music, but this does not come without a price tag. The entire process of commissioning, preparing and presenting these performances (two complete plus a concert of the last two cycles) cost a staggering half-a-million pounds!

Sponsors have indeed been generous. A CD recording of the performances, and possibly a DVD, are forthcoming. So the provision of this ’spiritually-based’ score is not without pecuniary advantages, especially as the work is to be divided up into separately performable anthems, which are also to be individually sponsored. Whether commercial or aesthetic considerations are uppermost in the composer’s mind in this and his other works since the success of The Protecting Veil in 1989 is not quite clear.

This presentation of The Veil of the Temple – magnificent as it was – did not provide a conclusive answer.

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