The Veil of the Temple

The Veil of the Temple [world premiere of concert version]

Patricia Rozario (soprano)
Simon Wall (tenor)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Andrew Rupp (baritone)
Thomas Guthrie (baritone)
Jeremy Birchall (bass)
Adrian Peacock (bass)

Dirk Campbell (duduk)
James Vivian (organ)

Holst Singers
The Choir of The Temple Church
Brighton Festival Chorus
English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble
Stephen Layton
James Morgan (assistant conductor)

Ceri Sherlock – director

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 1 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir John Tavener’s seven-hour vigil was first performed in July 2003 at the Temple Church in London. This Prom performance was the first one of the so-called ‘concert version’. It lasted about two-and-an-half hours.

Many of the performers were the same as last year with, now, the Brighton Festival Chorus supplementing the other choruses. For what must be termed – for want of a better word – a ‘truncated’ version, Tavener has, in the words of Paul Conway’s effusive programme note, “removed some of the repetition of sections.” Even so, there remain repetitions aplenty, as well as some omissions. I missed the full version of the “Lord’s Prayer”, which is given in three languages. I remember the Church Slavonic setting as being particularly powerful. The abbreviated form was not so effective.

Originally, Tavener’s structure expands throughout the first seven of the eight ‘cycles’ which go to make up the work. Although this is still apparent in the concert version, the cumulative effect is, inevitably, foreshortened. Also omitted are some of the soprano soloist’s initiations of cycles – only two are retained – which were some of the most evocative parts of the complete score.

The lengthy solo-voice recitations of Gospel passages have also been reduced, but as these austere and, literally, monotonous passages were perhaps among the most trying, their abbreviation was not wholly unwelcome.

What remains, then, are many of the repetitive mantra-like passages which go to make up the first seven cycles, and the final portion is left virtually intact.

There are moments – literally – of exceptional beauty, such as the soprano’s incantations, and Simon Wall’s caressing delivery of ‘Lógos’ (The Word), but these are set off against passages whose frequent repetitions, both in their placing within the structure and internally, will cause either annoyance or wonderment – depending upon your point of view and response to Tavener’s conception.

The frequently heard setting of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me”, invariably swiftly followed by its Greek translation, made one strongly empathise with the sentiments of the text. It doesn’t help that the first phrase of the English version sounds virtually note-for-note the same – albeit slowed down – as a number from “My Fair Lady” – an observation which might suggest your reviewer is being sacrilegious.

The fact is that many of Tavener’s phrases are simply not terribly interesting as purely musical ideas, however functional they might prove in a liturgical context. But The Veil of the Temple is not an act of liturgy. In fact, I kept wondering just what this piece is all about. Conway’s note informed that “it is neither a concert work nor a piece of formal liturgy”. Given we were attending what was designated a ‘concert version’ in a concert hall, there would appear to be a degree of contradiction.

Were we, then, to imagine ourselves present at some act of devotion? Certainly, some of the audience adopted an awe-struck, supplicatory disposition, though Albert Hall wasn’t very full, and many left during the course of the performance. With all its ‘have mercy’ exhortations, I began to think that maybe the composer was engaging in a public act of expiation. His views on Western materialism and decadence of all forms are well-expounded. His propensity to indulge himself in them is perhaps less widely known.

For all the apparent exotica of instrumentation and drawing upon a plethora of musical and religious cultures, there are passages of striking banality, revealing an obvious indebtedness to deservedly forgotten composers of Anglican Church music.

The constant slowness of pace, the seemingly unending drones, and the virtual absence of rhythmic or harmonic movement are not ingredients that make for a stimulating musical experience. Having experienced The Veil of the Temple in its two incarnations to date, I am perfectly prepared to admit that I do not ‘get’ what Tavener is about. It was instructive to hear this work so soon after Britten’s War Requiem. I seriously doubt whether Tavener’s ‘magnum opus’ (as it has been dubbed) will retain any of the power or relevance of Britten’s work in forty years’ time.

Tavener may believe his own statement that The Veil of the Temple is “an attempt to restore the sacred imagination”, and if so one must respect his intention. It certainly does not, for this listener, do anything for the purely musical imagination.

Stephen Layton’s fervent advocacy of the music was evident at every moment. If one were to make critical observations of the performance, then some flat choral singing was a fairly constant feature. The instrumental playing was assured – though not all of the chords and percussion swipes were unanimous in attack – and the gaggle of students who suddenly emerged to manipulate varied percussion didn’t seem wholly engaged in their task.

The solo singing was committed, but Patricia Rozario’s delivery of the cruelly-high music Tavener has composed for her was not, on this occasion, without noticeable strain. The disposition of forces in various parts of the building, and the frequent moving about, was both effective and added to the sense of ritual.

At the end, the audience was requested to follow the performers outside. By the time I emerged, they were in the process of dispersing and engaging in animated chatter. So the “sacred imagination” did not last beyond the confines of the RAH.

It would be too easy to talk in terms of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and other such derogatory appellations. But John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple, whether in its original or ‘concert’ version, musically speaking, and despite its pretensions, intentions and duration, is a very thin brew indeed.

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