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John TAVENER (b.1944) - A Portrait
In Alium – Section A (1968)
Eileen Hulse, soprano
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1983) - Movement 1: He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano, Auréole (Laura Gilbert, flute, Mary Hammann, viola, Stacey Shames, harp)
The Lamb (1982); The Tyger (1987)
Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Ikon of Light (1984): Movement 1: FOS 1, DOXA Movement 2: Piu Intensita
The Sixteen, Members of the Duke Quartet,/Harry Christophers
Mandelion for organ (1981) (extract)
Kevin Bowyer, organ
Chant for guitar (extract) (1984)
Jonathan Richards (guitar)
Ikon of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (extract)
Durham Cathedral Choir, Ian Shaw, organ/James Lancelot
The Protecting Veil (1989), Section 1
Maria Kliegel, ’cello, Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Mary of Egypt (1991) – Act III: Bless Duet
Patricia Rozario, Mary; Stephen Varcoe, Zossima; Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble/Lionel Friend
Akhmatova Songs for soprano and string quartet (1992) (two extracts)
Patricia Rozario, soprano, The Vanbrugh Quartet
Diódia for string quartet (1997) (extracts)
The Vanbrugh Quartet
Song for Athene (1993)
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Zodiacs for piano (1997)
Thalia Myers, piano
Prayer of the Heart (1999)
Björk, voice, Brodsky Quartet
Ikon of Eros (2000): Movement 2: Eρωη (Eros)
John Fleezanis, violin, Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale/Paul Goodwin
Mother and Child (2002) (extract)
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
John Tavener Reflects………A Recorded Interview
NAXOS 8.558152-53 [79:31+75:55]

This valuable issue combines some of Tavener’s best-known music with much that is less familiar. It finishes with a really lively and interesting interview, which reveals a number of the composer’s preoccupations and obsessions. He touches on many things: his relationship with well-known individuals, from The Beatles to the Prince of Wales, to his serious health problems, and his over-riding concern at the absence of spirituality in modern life, and hence in modern music.

Some troublesome issues arise; for example, he voices the opinion that, in music, complexity has always been equated with evil. Yet we know he loves the music of J.S. Bach, and no-one can pretend that Bach’s music is not complex. Despite this and other occasional paradoxes, Tavener’s burning sincerity comes through, as does his love of life and refreshingly strong sense of humour.

What of the musical tracks on the discs? There is a problem here in that little of the earlier music was easily available to Naxos, mostly being recorded for other labels. His first Proms commission, In alium of 1968, is here, but then we jump to the lovely To a child dancing in the wind of the early 1980s. To compensate for this, though, we have the première recording of a work written for the pop singer Björk in 1999, Prayer of the Heart. With the singer’s untrained and slightly wild voice and the simple chordal accompaniment from the Brodskys, this is a haunting experience.

Many of the tracks are, inevitably, extracts from long works. But, in addition to Prayer of the Heart, we do have complete The Lamb, The Tyger, (both Blake settings, the latter quoting from the former), the Song for Athene, which has never sounded more beautiful than in this St. John’s performance, and the hypnotic Zodiacs for solo piano. Tavener is not as well known for his instrumental as for his vocal works, but the inclusion of parts of the striking Mandelion for organ and the tranquil Chant for guitar, in addition to Zodiacs, may help to correct this somewhat.

All the performances are of the very highest standard, and I was deeply impressed by the extract of The Protecting Veil. In the section of his interview on track 7 of CD2, the composer is at pains to describe his feelings that this is primarily a feminine work, and ’cellist Maria Kliegel seems to project the intense tenderness of the work even more convincingly than its original protagonist, Steven Isserlis. The strings of the Ulster Orchestra demonstrate great beauty of tone.

The discs are accompanied by a booklet with detailed biographical notes by David McCleery. These are immensely helpful in putting the music in the context of the various crucial events in Tavener’s personal life. This set is an important issue, of incalculable value to those who have still to come to terms with this sometimes perplexing yet undeniably significant figure in the world of modern music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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