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Hyperion Records

CDA67217 - Tavener: The World & Diódia
CDA67217

Recording details: June 2000
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: January 2001
Total duration: 62 minutes 23 seconds

'The Vanbrugh Quartet’s intense and committed performance is of the highest calibre. An indispensable and thoroughly recommendable disc' (Gramophone)

‘The music generates an intense, mesmerising background stillness. I can’t imagine [it] performed better. The recording balances clarity and atmosphere to near-perfection’ (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Akhmatova Songs are among Tavener’s most impressive works of recent years. Performances are exemplary, as is the recording' (International Record Review)

'A disc that I can recommend without reservation' (Fanfare, USA)

'A sensational performance' (Music Week)

'In these pieces for singer and string quartet [Patricia Rozario] is at her very best, soaring to strenuous heights in the Akhmatova Songs and spinning a peculiar magic in The World' (Amazon.co.uk)

‘A first class release, which Tavener enthusiasts should not be without’ (MusicWeb International)

'If you doubt that Tavener is a composer of substance, this disc should change your mind' (Opera News)

'Rozario sings divinely and the excellent Vanbrugh Quartet play with magical effect' (The Northern Echo)

The World & Diódia
Solemn  [5'57]

John Tavener needs no introduction as he currently enjoys far greater celebrity than most British composers of his generation. This disc brings together a number of first recordings. The World is a setting of verses by Kathleen Raine, the poet and distinguished scholar of Blake and Yeats. Composed in 1997, the work was first performed by Patricia Rozario and the Vanbrugh Quartet in 1999, as part of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. The same artists have therefore been brought together for this recording. According to the composer's performance note The World 'should be performed at maximum intensity throughout. White hot, white cold—intensely loud, intensely soft—almost unbearable—that which is nowhere and everywhere—not human but divine—theanthropic'. The work was dedicated to Kathleen Raine on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

Another birthday is celebrated in the occasional piece Many Years. A charming gift to a personal friend, it was composed for the 50th birthday of the Prince of Wales in 1998. The greeting 'Many years!' is commonly used in Orthodox countries, either on special occasions or as an everyday expression.

Diódia (1995) is Tavener's Third String Quartet, his first two being The Hidden Treasure (1989) and The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991). Just as each of these works grew out of a major choral piece, so Diódia is similarly related to The Toll Houses ('Diódia' means literally 'Toll Houses'). This large-scale work (its premiere scheduled for Carnegie Hall in 2001) was inspired by a book of the same name by a Californian monk, Father Seraphim Rose.

Originally composed for soprano and cello (specifically Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis, two of Tavener's favourite musicians) the Akhmatova Songs were arranged for soprano and string quartet in response to a new commission by The Nash Ensemble.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
John Tavener currently enjoys far greater celebrity than most British composers of his generation. The immense popularity of such works as the unaccompanied choral setting of Blake’s The Lamb (1982), and The Protecting Veil for cello and strings (1988) has contributed enormously to his high profile. More recently his choral piece Song for Athene (1993) was chosen for performance at the funeral of Princess Diana, when it was heard by millions, and Fall and Resurrection – specially commissioned for the Millennium celebrations in January 2000 – attracted widespread publicity. Tavener also received a knighthood in the Millennium Honours List.

Those particular works are all post-1977, the year in which Tavener was admitted to the Russian branch of the Orthodox Church. (The Russian branch was chosen rather than the Greek because of its greater accessibility in this country.) Since that time his output has consisted almost entirely of sacred works, composed in a simple, direct style, free from what might be described as intellectual cleverness. His handling of musical form is equally straightforward, commonly relying on a succession of static blocks. Tavener’s music now stands apart from contemporary Western trends – indeed Western traditions in general. As early as 1981 he found himself ‘abandoning Western musical procedures and the whole idea of development’. His antipathy towards the kind of progress or evolution which is intrinsic to so much Western music may be regarded as the logical extension of a long-standing aversion to development sections in sonata-form movements.

Tavener’s adoption of the Orthodox faith was the outcome of his craving for some kind of profoundly traditional framework within which to work. Simultaneously he felt a dislike of modernism – ‘music-making organised and articulated according to the closed world of “art for art’s sake”’ – and a powerful attraction towards the culture and Church of his beloved Greece. (In 1993, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Hellenic culture, the Greek government awarded him the Apollo Prize.) As he observes, the Greeks have never experienced a Renaissance or Reformation, ‘so it is perfectly natural that the tradition flows in one long unbroken line’. Tavener also recognised the need for his own artistic ego to be subsumed by such a tradition: ‘In practice, it should be no longer “I” who “composes” but tradition that composes in me’. Naturally, since Tavener now regards composition as merely a part of religious ritual, almost an act of prayer, he finds the world of the concert hall and opera house uncongenial.

Tavener’s conversion to Orthodoxy has brought an increasing assimilation of such Eastern characteristics as isons (drone-like sustained notes) and microtonal embellishments which create unusual problems for singers who are not specially trained. He is also deeply influenced by ikons, the dominant art-form of the Orthodox East for well over a thousand years, and he often refers to his compositions as ‘ikons in sound’. (Several works are literally entitled ‘Ikons’ – including Ikon of Light, Ikon of the Nativity, Ikon of St Hilda and Ikon of the Trinity.) Tavener explains: ‘There is in ikons an uncontrolled wildness, a coarseness almost, a deep sense of the untamed ferocity of the desert, from the fact that the Orthodox fathers lived in the desert in close contact with nature. Thus Orthodoxy is so different from the scholastic intellectual approach of the Roman Catholic Church … I try to recreate today in my music just this uncivilised and surrealistic wildness’.

While Tavener’s earliest works were influenced by Stravinsky and Messiaen his present language contains elements from many quite different sources. These include, in addition to Russian and Byzantine chant, Indian music (he describes the Dagar Brothers’ performances of the Indian classical and devotional repertoire as ‘the most extraordinary sounds I know of’) and Sufi music.

In retrospect, one can see foreshadowed in the Tavener of the 1960s and ’70s important aspects of his present musical persona. A predilection for religious themes is already evident in compositions such as Cain and Abel, The Whale (the story of Jonah) and Ultimos Ritos (based on the poetry of St John of the Cross). Equally, at this early stage, Tavener displayed a talent for capturing the popular imagination through the bold originality of certain works. For instance, The Whale excited widespread interest and was even recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label, as were Celtic Requiem and other works on a subsequent disc.

Tavener was fortunate enough to be educated within the exceptionally musical atmosphere of Highgate School. In 1961, while still a schoolboy, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St John’s Presbyterian Church, Kensington. During his period at the Royal Academy of Music (from 1962) he was taught composition by Lennox Berkeley, before the more progressive Australian composer David Lumsdaine offered him free tuition. Lumsdaine proved to be a highly stimulating influence on the younger composer, especially because he ‘opened the doors of modernism’, in Tavener’s own words.

However, even earlier influences appear significant in the light of his subsequent development. When Tavener was only twelve years old he was overwhelmed by a performance of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, an experience which first aroused in him the urge to compose. Then, soon afterwards, a performance of The Magic Flute produced an equally vivid impression. The common factor in these two apparently dissimilar works is the element of ritual. Thus even as a child Tavener was instinctively drawn to a quality which was to become so essential to his own mature style.

Since he became a member of the Orthodox Church – a conversion which he felt strongly as a homecoming – Tavener has been astonishingly prolific. The numerous devotional works which have subsequently flowed from him range from brief a cappella settings to tremendously ambitious and extended compositions such as Resurrection and The Apocalypse, both of about three hours’ duration. Although chamber and instrumental works represent a distinct minority in Tavener’s output, they include several important contributions to their respective categories. The pieces recorded here thus expose a more neglected branch of the composer’s work.

The World is a setting of verses by Kathleen Raine, the poet and distinguished scholar of Blake and Yeats. Composed in 1997, the work was first performed by Patricia Rozario and the Vanbrugh Quartet on 2 July 1999, as part of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. A version for soprano and string orchestra was first heard in Belfast in August 1999. According to the composer’s performance note The World ‘should be performed at maximum intensity throughout. White hot, white cold – intensely loud, intensely soft – almost unbearable – that which is nowhere and everywhere – not human but divine – theanthropic’. Tavener recalls how the mantra-like quality of the poem immediately suggested to him a musical setting, while a Byzantine palindrome which he saw inscribed on a fountain in Istanbul strongly influenced the melodic content. The work was dedicated to Kathleen Raine on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday.

Diódia (1995) is Tavener’s Third String Quartet, his first two being The Hidden Treasure (1989) and The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991). Just as each of these works grew out of a major choral piece – The Resurrection and The Apocalypse respectively – so Diódia is similarly related to The Toll Houses (‘Diódia’ means literally ‘Toll Houses’). This large-scale work (its premiere is scheduled for Carnegie Hall in 2001) was inspired by a book of the same name by a Californian monk, Father Seraphim Rose. In the Orthodox Church the concept of the toll houses – more legend than dogma – symbolises ‘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’, the composer explains. Diódia he describes as ‘liquid metaphysics. It is distilled from The Toll Houses but it is wordless and more “silent” … The music is basically frozen and the worldly outbursts are to me like phantoms of things in the past’.

These regular ‘worldly’ interruptions – some of an almost Bartókian savagery, others gentler and more dance-like – contrast sharply with the predominantly serene, contemplative mood. Another intermittent feature is a rhythmic figure played on a bandir (drum). Tavener’s original idea was for this rhythm to be tapped on the wood of the viola, but he eventually realised that the drum, with its greater resonance and clarity, would be more effective. In Sufi music this bandir rhythm traditionally symbolises the heartbeat. At the very end of the work, following extremely quiet vocalising – ‘Remember me’, supporting the viola melody, then ‘O God’, nothing remains except the drum, now characterising the familiar rhythm with a crescendo-diminuendo. Concerning the work’s performance Tavener advises: ‘Diódia should be played in a church or in a sacred space, with subdued lighting. It is not music for dissection, therefore it should not even be played in a concert hall’. The quartet was commissioned by the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, the City of London Festival, and the Festival de Saint Nazaire, Brittany. Its first performance was given by the Chilingirian Quartet in July 1997, at Bantry House, West Cork.

The occasional piece Many Years, a charming gift to a personal friend, was composed for the fiftieth birthday of the Prince of Wales in 1998. It was first performed at Hampton Court Palace in November that year, when an alternative version for SATB chorus was heard. The greeting ‘Many years!’ is commonly used in Orthodox countries, either on special occasions or as an everyday expression.

Having already set poems of Anna Akhmatova in his Akhmatova: Requiem of 1979/80, Tavener returned to the great Russian poet’s work in his Akhmatova Songs. Completed in 1993, they are based on poems from different periods of Akhmatova’s life. While the first three express her admiration for other great poets, the fourth (Couplet) treats praise of her own work with suspicion. The Muse vividly evokes the welcome inspiration brought by ‘the kindly guest’, and the final poem, in which the musical material of the previous songs is recalled, eloquently conveys the anticipation of death. Tavener has explained how the poems attracted him because of ‘their simplicity, their starkness, their lack of frills, their complete lack of complexity’. He includes the Akhmatova Songs among his own favourite pieces. Covering a wide emotional range, from the increasingly declamatory ‘Pushkin and Lermontov’ to the childlike innocence of ‘Boris Pasternak’, these economical yet austerely beautiful songs represent an ideal fusion of words and music. Originally composed for soprano and cello (specifically Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis, two of Tavener’s favourite musicians) following a commission from the Cricklade Music Festival, the Akhmatova Songs were arranged for soprano and string quartet in response to a new commission by The Nash Ensemble. In this form they were first heard on 16 March 1995. Since her notable success in the title role of Tavener’s Mary of Egypt in 1992, Patricia Rozario has been the composer’s automatic first choice for his subsequent works requiring a solo soprano.

Paradoxically, while Tavener experienced – and ultimately satisfied – a longing to become immersed in a profound tradition, his musical personality has always been characterised by a visionary daring – a willingness to take risks. His inclusion of the driven, tormented poet Rimbaud among the characters in his opera about St Thérèse of Lisieux is a case in point. Similarly he describes his recent dramatic work The Toll Houses as ‘quite vulgar, quite Hollywoody in places’, while Mother Thekla, the Orthodox abbess who is both librettist and mentor to Tavener, has used the significant word ‘dangerous’ in connection with part of this same work.

Most attempts to account for the phenomenon of Tavener’s popular success point to the mystical yet uncomplicated spirituality of his music, and the way in which this quality seems to answer an instinctive need in contemporary audiences. While this spiritual core is undeniable, it should be recognised that an even more fundamental and obvious factor is Tavener’s reliance on sustained melody of a vocal quality. His belief that music scarcely exists if it cannot be sung is surely the key to his communicative ability and the accessibility of his work.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2001

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