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The World (string quartet and soprano)
(string quartet)

Many Years (soprano and string quartet)
Akhmatova Songs
(soprano and string quartet)

The Vanbrugh Quartet
Patricia Rozario, soprano
Hyperion CDA67217 [DDD 62:32]
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These days there seems to be a new Tavener disc released every month although this one is of particular interest, focusing as it does, on his third string quartet of 1995, Diódia. Tavener's first two quartets, The Hidden Treasure (1989) and The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991) drew their musical material from large-scale choral works written around the same time, namely The Resurrection and The Apocalypse. In the same way the new work has developed out of The Toll Houses, of which Diódia is a literal translation, the new major work being scheduled for premiere in Carnegie Hall later this year. The original inspiration stems from a book by a Californian monk, Father Seraphim Rose, which deals with the Orthodox concept symbolising "the posthumous states of being of the soul, where it is decided whether the soul spends a certain period of time in hell and a certain period of time in heaven".

My initial reservation about this quartet was whether it could sustain its thirty five minute duration, given the intimate nature of the quartet medium allied with the contemplative nature of Tavener's music. This concern proved unjustified, largely due to the way in which the composer presents his material, having abandoned the conventional use of Western form and structure in his music. Instead he alternates "blocks" of sound, with no conventional development, and it is to his credit that this comes across as entirely natural, an indication of the oneness he feels with his methods of composition. The meditative, contemplative material is certainly here, but the contrasting passages in between often demonstrate something approaching savagery, being ritualistic, even ethnic in their sound world. There is indeed clear reference to Tavener's interest in Indian and Sufi music in his use of the bandir, a drum on which an insistent rhythmic figure is tapped out. Traditionally symbolising the heartbeat, the bandir returns at various points during the work, most memorably at the end, where it concludes the quartet alone. The Vanbrugh Quartet are proving to be an excellent signing by the Hyperion label (for further listening I would strongly recommend their 1999 release on the same label of John McCabe's Third, Fourth  CDA67078 and Fifth Quartets, riveting stuff), and they live up to that reputation here with a highly dedicated performance of Diódia which demonstrates an impressive affinity with the music.

Patricia Rozario has become synonymous with Tavener's music with her title role performance in Mary of Egypt in 1992. Since then she has become the composer's first choice in any works requiring a solo soprano and it is hard to imagine that anyone could be better suited to his music. The frequently stratospheric soaring lines and eastern ornamentations seem quite natural to her (a clue here perhaps in Rozario's roots - she was born in Bombay). Rozario features in all three of the remaining works on the disc, the most substantial being the Akhmatova Songs, which were originally written in 1993 specifically for Rozario and the cellist Steven Isserlis and re-scored in 1995. Tavener had turned to the poetry of Akhmatova previously (Akhmatova Requiem 1979/80), attracted by the poetry's lack of complexity and directness, something which is beautifully reflected in these at times bleak, but moving settings. A similar feeling of intensity is achieved in The World, a setting of an astonishing poem by Kathleen Raine, whilst Many Years, the remaining piece on the disc and a miniature in comparison, was written in 1998 as a brief but touching fiftieth birthday present for the Prince of Wales, a close personal friend of the composer.

Philip Borg-Wheeler provides an informative and comprehensive booklet note and the music has been captured with excellent clarity and balance by the Hyperion engineers. All in all, a first class release, which Tavener enthusiasts should not be without.

Christopher Thomas

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