Ikon of Light
Requiem Fragments [BBC commission: world premiere]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Barry Clements & Roger Harvey (trombones)
Heath Quartet [Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & Christopher Murray (cello)]
Samuel West (reader)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 4 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Presumably not commissioned with the First World War commemoration in mind, one of the late Sir John Tavener’s last works was appositely premiered in this Prom leading up to the nation’s Lights Out event marking the exact centenary of the United Kingdom’s entry into War against Germany (11 o’clock Post meridiem on 4 August 1914). Requiem Fragments, like the other new Tavener piece at the Proms this season (Gnosis), mixes a Christian text and mantras from other religions, here Hindu. Fragments of the Requiem Mass, each paragraph heralded by a resonant drone on “Om” eventually makes way for four Hindu words: “Brahma” and “Atma” (the latter sung against repeated use of “Sanctus” in the most harmonically crunching music), then – softly intoned from the organ console by a radiant Carolyn Sampson – “Manikarnika” and “Mahapralaya”.
Much of this has an intense, intimate beauty that somehow enveloped the vast confines of the Royal Albert Hall. In addition to the voices, which start as two separate choirs and then meld into a different formation more than halfway through, the string quartet and two trombones (sitting antiphonally at the extremes of the other performers) have their own extended sections which muse in much the same atmosphere. Perhaps because their music is unencumbered with religiosity I found those most involving, but even Tavener’s idiosyncratic merging of World Religions did not outstay its welcome at just a touch over 24 minutes, as it falls away from the waves of sound.
With contributions from violin (Oliver Heath), viola and cello, Ikon of Light from 1984 opened the concert. It’s palindromic form frames the massive central setting of Saint Symeon’s thousand-year-old Mystic Prayer, with three shorter movements (before and aft), the first and last two of which repeat one word apiece (“Fos” – Light; “Dhoxa” – Glory; and, to end, “Epiphania” – Shining Forth). Given the concert ended with the extinguishing of lights, switched off as Samuel West intoned Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s comment: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”, Ikon of Light was like a memory from a better world, or a hope of a better world to come. West also read Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.
The performances from Tallis Scholars, conducted by Peter Phillips, were beautiful, restrained and moving. Because of its brevity, perhaps more impressive was The Lamb, an additional piece given while the Prommers lit their candles and held them aloft in semi-darkness (not complete because the concert was being filmed and the green Exit signs refused to bow to the poignancy of the moment).