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Hyperion Records

CDA67475 - Tavener: Choral Music
CDA67475
Recording details: January 2004
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: September 2004
Total duration: 73 minutes 23 seconds

'Polyphony fields 25 singers for this project and for this repertory, I think you've got about a good a choir as you could possibly get. Stephen Layton directs with clarity and sensitivity. In fact, his expert pacing is the main reason for this recording's success. This is one of Layton's best CDs yet, and that's saying something' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'The brilliant, white, celestial light Tavener so effectively evoked earlier in the decade had a chill core. Here—if you will bear with the synaesthesiac overtones—gold seeps in, along with the deep blue traditionally associated with portraits of the Virgin' (Gramophone)

'Stephen Layton's heartfelt commitment to the composer's music brings forth shimmering performances from his excellent choir Polyphony. If you enjoy radiant choral writing and singing, then this is the disc for you' (Choir & Organ)

'there's no doubt about the quality of the performances. Tavener finds devoted interpreters in Polyphony who produce some of the most beautiful choral singing you could ever hope to hear. And all is captured in a glowing recording' (BBC Music Magazine)

'for the Tavener devotee, among whose number I include myself, this disc is an essential survey of the composer's recent musical concerns, and contains some splendid new music' (International Record Review)

'Stephen Layton's superb choir, Polyphony, does wonders in bringing variety to a sequence of John Tavener's works for small chorus that might easily have seemed too slow and meditative' (The Guardian)

'The power of Tavener at his best is fully unlocked by Polyphony and Stephen Layton, whose sensitivity to the sacred and human in his music communicates in every work on this disc' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Polyphony's singing is immaculate, captured in the resonant acoustic of the Temple Church in glorious recorded sound. It's a hard man who would not be moved by this disc' (Fanfare, USA)

'performed with conviction by Stephen Layton's Polyphony. His professional choir manages to convey the hypnotic serenity at the heart of Tavener's latest works, while packing a punch in their more dramatic moments, a strategy supported by Hyperion's A-grade recorded sound' (Music Week)

Choral Music

Hyperion’s Record of the Month for September brings us some astonishingly fresh new compositions from Sir John Tavener.

Moving away from the Greek Orthodox rites which have infused so much of his recent output, Tavener’s inspiration now embraces the metaphysical—in both text and musical response—with remarkable results. The Second Coming, for example, sets words by W B Yeats in an outpouring of expectation and drama.

The three newest works—Butterfly Dreams, Schuon Hymnen and Shûnya, all written in 2003—are representative of a new phase in Tavener’s work which has reached its climax thus far in the seven-hour-long Veil of the Temple (to be performed under Stephen Layton at this year’s BBC Proms). Butterfly Dreams may initially appear to be a secular work, yet the composer himself regards it as sacred, butterflies in this context being seen as symbols and even vehicles for the sacred. Schuon Hymnen, setting the words of Sufi sheikh, artist and metaphysician Frithjof Schuon, is a mantra-like Hymn to the Virgin, while Shûnya—written for Stephen Layton—is an extended meditation on the Buddhist ideal of ‘emptiness’ (‘shûnya’); minimal influence from ‘Western’ tonality here visits the world of Tibetan monks, the sonic halo of the temple bowl (a kind of gong) invoking an ecstatic evocation of eternity.

As one who has slept, an Easter anthem and the earliest work on this disc, comes from the end of that compositional phase which saw such Tavener favourites as the Song for Athene (performed at Princess Diana’s funeral), and itself deserves to become a part of the core repertory.

With no fewer than six première recordings, this disc is essential listening.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
If John Tavener’s music has always been concerned with eternity, and if it has always confounded those who have horizons no wider than Western traditions of the recent past, it is also true to say that the ways in which he has dealt with the sacred in his work have been characterized by considerable variety, and have never ceased on occasion to surprise. Initially, surprise was caused by his stripping away of the unnecessary, his quest for the musically – and therefore the spiritually – essential. This quest led to a vast outpouring of music, encompassing a great many miniatures and large-scale compositions of the stature of the Vigil Service and Eis Thanaton.

The earliest piece in this anthology, As one who has slept (1996), comes almost at the end of this long chain of works. It deals, in an extraordinarily transparent fashion and with the simplest of musical means, with Christ’s harrowing of Hell: the period, commemorated on Holy Saturday, when the agony of the Crucifixion is behind us and we are in a state of expectancy before the proclamation of the Resurrection.

The Bridal Chamber dates from three years later. It was written in memory of Pat Harrison, who was the inspiration behind the Little Missenden Festival, with which Tavener has been associated for many years – children from Little Missenden Village School participated in the premiere (1969) and subsequent recording of Celtic Requiem. The Bridegroom here is Christ, whose second coming is a recurring theme during the services of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. The text of this exaposteilarion – ‘Thy Bridal Chamber I see adorned, O my Saviour, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter there’ – has led to the Matins services of the first three days of Holy Week being popularly referred to as ‘Bridegroom Matins’. Using a znamenny chant as a basis, Tavener sets the text in a radiant D major, but coloured by the frequent use of added ninths and suspensions: an apparently ‘wanton’ richness that would, a few years before, not have been apparent in such a fashion.

Birthday Sleep, dating from 1999 and setting a text by the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins – viewed by Tavener as a meditation on the Incarnation – uses similar techniques, and also employs some unexpected harmonic shifts, so that the cadences are variously in G major, E major and B minor, and Watkins’s couplet of repeating lines at the end of each strophe is set in pure F major. The effect is as disconcerting as it is fresh.

The Second Coming takes up the theme of The Bridal Chamber, in the form of Yeats’s poem of the same name. Yeats’s work is pervaded by metaphysics, and though his passage through theosophy and his attempted synthesis in A Vision would perhaps not lead one to expect any coincidence with the themes of Orthodox Christianity, in fact the sense of separation from God underlying the plea for salvation in The Bridal Chamber corresponds exactly to the apocalyptic Yeats:

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

The instability of the world that turns its back on God is symbolized in the semitone clash (C–D flat) played, barely audibly, on the organ pedals in the work’s first bar. This dyad underlies the entire piece, sometimes resolving onto a simple C, but always returning. And even when the dissonance does resolve, it is masked (to use another Yeatsian word) by harmony from another key on the manuals – one can say symbolically that different keys represent different metaphysical states. The choir reflects and augments this instability, singing a lullaby whose dissolving harmonic logic is periodically interrupted by unison intimations of the darkness to come.

While Exhortation and Kohima, commissioned for the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003, projects a serenity hardly to be found in The Second Coming, setting as it does the famous lines from Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen – ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’ – it is nevertheless characterized by harmonic unpredictability. The first section, which one might, from the combination of accidentals to be seen, initially assume to be in G minor, in fact cadences exclusively on D major and B flat, which confers upon the music a curiously weightless quality; the second section is in what one might describe as a mode centred on E major/minor, fading into the silence of eternity by means of a descending sequence of held chords.

Butterfly Dreams, Schuon Hymnen and Shûnya, all written in 2003, are representative of a genuinely new phase in Tavener’s work, a phase which has reached its climax thus far in the seven-hour-long Veil of the Temple. Butterfly Dreams is an exuberant, light-filled piece setting texts chosen by Alan Barrett concerning butterflies. Though it may initially appear to be a purely secular work, in fact the composer himself regards it as sacred, butterflies in this context being seen as symbols and even vehicles for the sacred. There are, in addition, many musical connections with earlier works by Tavener – the ‘shadow canon’ of the first and last movements, and even more the second movement, ‘Haiku by Kokku’, recall the second of the Two Hymns to the Mother of God; the ‘variations on a scale’ that characterize ‘Haiku by Issa’ are familiar from many works, and the resonant chordal refrains of Pavel Friedmann’s The Butterfly echo the paradisical call of Funeral Ikos.

Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998) was a metaphysician, and also a Sufi sheikh. As well as an extensive body of writings expounding his religious views, he left the verses set by Tavener in Schuon Hymnen, encapsulating his vision of the Virgin as a ‘primordial and universal woman’. Tavener has reinforced what he describes as the ‘sacral erotic nature’ of Schuon’s words by adding the phrase ‘Nigra sum sed formosa’ (‘I am black but comely’) from the Song of Songs, and the Arabic salutation ‘May peace and blessings be upon thee, Mary’. The work is characterized by a verse-and-refrain structure: Tavener repeats Schuon’s Biblical quotation, ‘Mit der Sonne nur bekleidet’ (‘Clothed with the sun alone’), obsessively throughout the course of the work, with the direction ‘like a repeated mantra’, interspersing it with luminous, floating chordal sections.

Shûnya takes for its text three Sanskrit words, meaning ‘void’ and ‘Hail, Infinite Light’, in a majestically static fashion deliberately recalling Buddhist ritual. There are two choirs, one a mixed ensemble and the other of a few bass voices – who sing the word ‘shûnya’ (‘void’) throughout – accompanied by the resonant booming of a Tibetan temple bowl. The dissonant organ pedal of The Second Coming (and, going even further back, the constant E flat triad of Celtic Requiem) is recalled here, but transmuted into a pure low C, bathed in the sonic halo of the temple bowl, an ecstatic evocation of eternity.

Ivan Moody © 2004

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