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John TAVENER (b.1944)
Canciones Españolas (1972) [16:23]
Requiem for Father Malachy (1973) [35:27]
James Bowman (counter-tenor); Kevin Smith (piano) (Canciones)
The King's Singers; The Nash Ensemble/John Tavener
rec. Church of St John The Evangelist, Islington, London, 16-17 September 1975. ADD. originally released: RCA LP LRL1 5104.
LYRITA SRCD.311 [51:58]

Experience Classicsonline

Our untiring classical editor Rob Barnett having already reviewed this disc, it was an unexpected pleasure to be asked by him to contribute my own comments. I went through the 1970s absorbing broadcast and recorded contemporary music like a sponge, but don't remember encountering these pieces when they first appeared. I suspect my ears were more orientated towards the more European and especially Polish avant-garde at that time, the fascination of those new sonorities being as far removed from convention as I could imagine.

That said, there is nothing parochial about John Tavener's music, and on a 'blind' audition of this CD I might imagine more people spotting the British quality of the singing rather than that of the composition. There are some features in these settings which reminded me a little of Tippett. The twinkling piccolos and sonorous bell-like utterances in the Dies Irae from the Requiem might owe something to that composer, but for me the influence which kept sneaking back is that of late Stravinsky. There is something about the cool flutes in some of the Canciones Españolas, and in the nasal muted brass, serial tone relationships and tintinnabular chords in parts of the Requiem which remind me of the Requiem Canticles. This and other connections exist within and enrich these scores, Messiaen in the piano part of the Sanctus of the Requiem for instance, but Tavener was undoubtedly a pioneer and highly individual in this field.

There are some fascinating sounds in the Canciones Españolas. The first and last of the instrumental pieces, the Prelude and Postlude, have the restrained vibrato of flutes against the similarly coloured by straight-line notes of a portativo organ. I'm not quite so convinced by the mix of medieval/contemporary rough and tumble of movements such as the Pastor, non te aduermas and Tres morias: the superimposition of 'new' spiky piccolos and harpsichord on 'old' drum and voice don't really do much for either. Comparing this to the kind of transformations in something like Peter Maxwell Davies' 1969 Vesalii Icones argues for a slightly less sledgehammer approach. This is however a recurring element and takes on stronger forms in the sustained clusters of the Interlude and the timeless march of the flutes and sparkling bells which runs through the Rosa das Rosas movement which follows.

One of the central features of the Requiem for Father Malachy is the familiar sound of the King's Singers, in their own right pioneers of contemporary music for vocal ensemble in this period. Theirs is the limpid core of the work, with immaculate sustained chords which run through the final Libera Me, as well as the fascinating chorale at the end of the Dies Irae and elsewhere. Nobody sings blue notes or intonates dissonance in quite the same way, but these vocalists are also champions in some of the seriously demanding rhythmic writing elsewhere in the score. I can't get away from the Stravinskian resonances in the opening Requiem aeternam, but the sense of nuance and colour in the chords is fascinating. The way the Kyrie eleison builds into quasi-atonal cluster writing reminds me a little of that Polish school I mentioned earlier, and combining this with traditional plainchant creates a chilling juxtaposition of disparate worlds - comfort and discomfort, faith and unstable insecurity. The opening of the Dies Irae might be from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but does create its own dramatic atmosphere. This is the longest of eight movements by far, and is filled with dark imagery.

Paul Conway's excellent booklet notes fill in more detail about the genesis and content of these works, but to sum up, these pieces are relatively early Tavener, and fans of his later less dissonant work might prefer to try before they buy (the MusicWeb offer is Sale or Return). This is music of and for its time, but still has much to offer today. There are fascinating worlds to be explored here, and many of the instrumental colours and compositional structures found here are those which he has been exploiting ever since.

These 1975 recordings are stunning. Some of the musicians in Canciones Españolas are set widely apart in the stereo mix, giving heavy headphone users like myself the feeling that those players and singers were behind me. This works in a more antiphonal way over speakers and is more an intriguing quirk than a problem. The Requiem for Father Malachy is an even more complex set of challenges for sound engineers, but from the subtle detail of Tavener's trademark hand-bells to weighty brass and drums the entire musical landscape is captured superbly.

Dominy Clements


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