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Total Eclipse

John Harle (saxophone)
Patricia Rozario (soprano)
Academy of Ancient Music/Paul Goodwin
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Total Eclipse is the more recent of these two major works as it was premiered in St. Paul's Cathedral in June 2000. All Tavener's music has a sacred (specifically Greek Orthodox) basis and this one explores the conversion of Saul (later St Paul). It begins dissonantly, savagely so, with John Harle's soprano saxophone, representing the unregenerate Saul in a somewhat similar destructive role as that of the snare drum in Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. Things then quieten down considerably, in volume, in tempo (the music becomes almost static at times) and in harmonic astringency, with singers James Gilchrist (tenor), Christopher Robson (counter-tenor), Max Jones (treble) and the New College Choir taking increasing roles as Saul sees the light on the road to Damascus and then absorbs the Christian teaching. Even when Paul is martyred in the fourth, final section (it would have been helpful, for study purposes at least, to have had the four sections - of a 40 minute work - separately tracked) we do not return to anywhere near the intensity of the opening. The performance seems superb, with John Harle quite brilliant; the booklet note is by Tavener himself.

Agraphon, dating from 1995 and around half the length of Total Eclipse, sets words by Angelos Sikelianos written in 1941 and describing an unrecorded incident in Christ's teachings. The principal protagonist here is not the saxophone but the soprano Patricia Rozario, who copes superbly with her sometimes cruelly sustained, often melismatic vocal line. Both works feature the drums substantially, modern in Agraphon, baroque in Total Eclipse. The use of early instruments in the orchestra is deliberate, the composer favouring "their more sober and hieratical sound"; he could perhaps have also said, their added sharpness and clarity. Tavener addicts will need no urging to invest in this disc; others are urged to give it a trial.

Philip Scowcroft

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