Prom 20: 4th August 2001 – Song of the Cosmos

John Tavener
Song of the Cosmos* (first performance)
The Planets

Patricia Rozario (soprano)
Deacon Meliton (bass)

Bach Choir
Waynflete Singers
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Hill* and Yan Pascal Tortelier

Photograph of Patricia Rozario
Photographer: Sheila Rock

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Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 4 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The universe is big – very, very big – and so it is only reasonable to expect a very big work with a very big number of musicians to celebrate it. This Prom contained two pieces, almost a century apart, rejoicing in the cosmos. Holst took an astrological look at the heavens; John Tavener has a completely different view.

The Proms is no stranger to Tavener premieres. Song of the Cosmos is the fourth following In Alium, The Protecting Veil and The Apocalypse. Song of the Cosmos, commissioned by the Bach Choir to celebrate its 125th-anniversary, was conducted here by the choir’s ninth musical director, David Hill; with the Waynflete Singers a choir of over three-hundred singers was formed. The orchestra and choir are divided into four distinct groups each representing an element of the cosmos according to Tavener.

The first is “Sofia”, Holy Wisdom (Sofia is the Greek word for wisdom), and is placed in the highest and most remote space possible – string quintet, various percussion instruments and soprano Patricia Rozario. I did not see the benefit of such positioning, which made the sound indistinct rather than distant as perhaps Tavener had intended. Since the “Sofia” group played alone, it left the audience looking at an orchestra and choir that was sitting silent, and as there was a lack of musical presence during these sections the audience did get a little restless.

The second and third groups represent the angels and earth respectively. The second group – SATB choir, trumpets, timpani and another assortment of percussion – sits slightly higher than the third (SATB choir, trombones & strings) with both groups sounding together, singing in ecstatic praise to God. Musically the two groups send a harmonic message, in much the same way as Strauss does in Also sprach Zarathustra when he draws the comparison between “man” and “nature”. The second group sing strong, major triadic harmony, the third join them a minor third below, thus turning the chord into a minor seventh – much less powerful, though perhaps with a greater potential for development.

The final group (solo bass, strings, percussion) represents the “Cry for Mercy”, with Deacon Meliton taking a reflective role with melismatic chanting of the Greek mass, ’Kyrie Eleison’. Tavener states that the rhythm must sound natural, with “the onus of this falling predominantly in the music for the solo bass, who should be a trained Indian master”. Deacon Meliton is ordained in the Orthodox Church, as well as being educated at Westminster Abbey Choir School. To find somebody with both skills would seem to limit the number of future performances. Song of the Cosmos stands as a testimony to Tavener’s religious convictions and how they interact with his current musical ambitions.

Under Yan Pascal Tortelier, the relentless hammering of the 5/4 rhythm of ’Mars’ signifies the brutality of war – Holst finished Mars just before the start of the First World War. The precision that was lacking in Tortelier’s Prom the previous evening (No.18) was firmly in place now – a sprightly ’allegro’ for what would be a mixed performance. For me, the gap between sections at figure VI should be as small as possible; there is no pause marked in the score, so why conductors add one is anathema to me. Sadly, Tortelier increased the pause and momentum was lost.

Another tricky situation is the positioning of the brass in the Albert Hall. They are always raised well above the strings and wind making good balance and ensemble-playing almost impossible – fortissimo brass too often drowned some delightful playing in the woodwind section.

Another case of misplaced noise became evident at the beginning of ’Venus’. The organ was not turned off. After ’Mars’, the instrument is not required until Saturn. Could it not have been turned off? That said, there was some lovely playing, especially in the woodwind arpeggio passage towards the end.

The brass once again drowned every other section in ’Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity’, though for sheer spectacle, watching the two timpani parts, played by Paul Turner and Geraint Daniel, made up for any balance problems – such is the delight of “live music”.

After the brilliance of ’Jupiter’, old age sets in with ’Saturn’. This is, by far, the finest performance I have ever heard of this movement. One could almost feel the onset of ageing with the heavy string sound and syncopated flute, bass flute and harp. With the entry of trombones and horns the movement becomes hopeful, though still within the bounds of “time-of-life”. The tubular bell player was a little more sprightly than the rest and got out of sync, but serenity was soon restored with Tortelier giving the orchestra a big smile – he knew that something magical had just taken place.

After Saturn stole the magic, we needed a magician to maintain the pace – so to ’Uranus’. Once again some spectacular timpani playing, as too was the nimble stick-work of xylophonist Paul Patrick. Sorry to bring it up again, but since we had to listen to the bellows of the organ for the last four movements it would have been nice to hear the glissando at the end of ’Uranus’ – it’s marked with four Fs!

The final movement as conceived by Holst (i.e. not Colin Matthews’s Pluto) found some female members of the Bach Choir in the Gallery, now ex-’Sofia’. This is a hidden choir that does work, and, in this performance, better than most. In the score, Holst asks that the choir should be in an adjoining room with the door left open until the last bar when it is to be slowly and silently closed. This is almost exactly what happened this evening with the choir exiting down a convenient fire escape and closing the door behind them. It’s a pity that there were some intonation problems in the lower vocal parts, but separated by a distance of a few hundred feet, and being conducted by camera relay, it was surprising that it worked at all.

I have been told that radio listeners could still hear the choir when applause started; in response all I can say is that in the Hall the sound had completely vanished.

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