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Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)

Missa Wellensis & other sacred music

Wells Cathedral Choir, Matthew Owens (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: May 2015
Wells Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Mike Cox
Release date: August 2016
Total duration: 73 minutes 43 seconds

Cover artwork: Icon of St Andrew, Wells Cathedral (1999) by Aliksandre Gormatiouk
 

Wells Cathedral Choir celebrates the life and works of the late British composer Sir John Tavener. The programme is centred around his Missa Wellensis and includes several premiere recordings of works commissioned especially for the choir.

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'The Wells Cathedral Choir … have a slightly rough sound that's just right for Tavener. An important addition to the Tavener discography' (AllMusic, USA)» More

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Death came close to John Tavener in December 2007. The composer, in Switzerland for the first performance of his Mass of the Immaculate Conception, was struck by a heart attack that knocked him into a coma and demanded emergency surgery. When he regained consciousness, Tavener the convalescent discovered that the familiar fervour of his faith in God was no longer there; he had also lost his desire to write music. Tavener’s long recovery at home, a trial endured for three years, was marked by physical weakness and extreme pain and their correlates, inactivity and depression. While the former remained constant companions for the rest of his life, the latter gradually dissolved.

The spiritual life, tested to destruction by Tavener’s heart attack, returned with force and clarity as he began once again to listen to music; it was propelled by the falling away of old anxieties, and found its full expression in a flood of late compositions, austere works stripped of all superfluous ornament and excess. Tavener completed over twenty pieces between 2010 and his death in November 2013, several little more than 90 seconds in duration, none longer than 25 minutes. These late-flowering pieces marked a step away from the expansive gestures present in much of his music of the early 2000s; they also encompassed a refinement of Tavener’s universalist outlook, part of a personal quest for Sophia perennis or the perennial wisdom common to all religious traditions.

The works of Tavener’s final years, including the Missa Wellensis and Preces and Responses for Wells Cathedral, were driven by an intention to recover the essence of sacred or spiritual texts, to renew their vitality and immediacy, to connect with their deepest claims to truth. During his recovery he had listened to the Mass of the Immaculate Conception and later recalled being disturbed by the way its music had haunted his subconscious mind following surgery in Zurich. “I was disturbed also by the almost mad daring I had taken with texts from the Hindus, Muslims, American Indians as well as setting the Mass in its entirety interspersed with tantric poems about the Virgin Mary.”

Tavener found his way back to composition by setting texts rooted in mankind’s need for meaning. Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Shakespeare’s sonnets spoke to the composer of the test of pain and illness and the value of unconditional love. There was no ‘mad daring’ about the texts he chose for the succession of predominantly choral or vocal works that followed; rather, he turned most often to words that express ancient wisdom in simple terms: A Buddhist Miniature, for example, conveys a verse from the Dhammapada, ‘Cease to do evil’; the carol O that we were there! projects a longing to access eternal time and space; A New Commandment and If ye love me, to words from St John’s Gospel, deliver a core Christian message.

When Matthew Owens proposed that Tavener might consider setting the Latin Mass for Wells Cathedral Choir, the composer was so inspired that he almost completed the work before it had been contracted. Missa Wellensis stands among the longest and most substantial of Tavener’s final works. The piece, created in the early months of 2013 as a tribute to the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, is scored for double choir and calls for the subdivision of each voice part. Within its 20-minute span Tavener evokes the infinity of creation, sounded and re-sounded in great chordal blocks hewn from simple harmonic material.

The Kyrie’s opening plea for mercy is shared by the two choirs, the first echoed by the second in a canon at the unison launched at a half bar’s distance. Its initial treble line and prevailing choral sonorities call to mind the Kyrie of Bruckner’s Second Mass. The central Christe, more introspective than the movement’s outlying Kyries, continues the process of canonic repetition, albeit subtly varied in structure. Tavener recalls the music of the opening Kyrie but stops short of a full repetition, casting sound into silence and liberating his ‘monumental, majestic’ Gloria from the void. Choirs one and two once more share a unison canon, stated either at the distance of a half or full bar. The consequent blurring of individual parts and creation of a single body of sound appear to arise from what the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade describes as “indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable” sacred time, “[…] a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites.”

Missa Wellensis was written for one of the oldest of all Christian rites, that of Eucharist. It was first heard at Wells Cathedral on 18 May 2014, with the Creed spoken by the congregation. Tavener telescopes his setting of the Sanctus, Hosanna and Benedictus into a single movement of concentrated energy, reserving the work’s most exuberant rhythmic writing for the Sanctus, recycling the music of the Kyrie to carry the two Hosannas, and addressing the mystery of the Benedictus with simple harmonies made complex by the use of canon. The Agnus Dei opens with a twelve-note melody shared between the unison trebles and tenors of both choirs; it concludes with a Quotation from O vos omnes, one of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories, stated in choir one and echoed in unison by choir two at the distance of one full bar. The purity of Victoria’s polyphony, the very sounding of the composing priest’s profound personal faith, complements and completes Tavener’s Mass for Wells.

Cathedral Commissions, a creative initiative launched by Wells Cathedral in 2006, was able to raise funds to commission both the Missa Wellensis and a new set of Preces and Responses. The latter was first brought to life by Matthew Owens and Wells Cathedral Choir during Evensong on 18 May 2014. Owens has set their premiere recording within a liturgical context, evoking Eucharist through the Mass, the Lord’s Prayer and a Communion motet in the form of Love bade me welcome, and outlining the musical monuments of Choral Evensong with Tavener’s Preces and Responses, Psalm 121 and Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’. Song for Athene appears as an anthem in the Evensong sequence, Prayer for the healing of the sick stands in lieu of spoken prayers, while They are all gone into the world of light serves as a final blessing.

Tavener’s contribution to the repertoire of preces and responses, written for unaccompanied double choir, complements early landmarks of the genre by Tallis and Tomkins and more recent examples by Kenneth Leighton and Gabriel Jackson. The opening section of his Preces and Responses rests on a reiterated bass note. Tavener weaves several gloriously unexpected chromatic passing notes and cadences into the music’s stately harmonic language; the recurrence of a sublime half cadence in The Lord’s Prayer, meanwhile, suggests eternal time. Prayers for the Queen and the ministers of the Church are capped by joyful choral responses, while the plea for peace in our time is answered with defiant strength by the two choirs singing identical music in close imitation. The final responses, a brief sequence of blessings offered in the presence of the Lord and the spiritual community, close with Tavener’s resounding thanks to God.

In 1977 Tavener was received into the Orthodox Church. He found his way there after prolonged immersion in Roman Catholicism and the spiritual angst that it engendered. What he soon discovered was the depth of tradition within Orthodoxy. The composer was strongly affected by his first experience of hearing the Znamenny chants of the Russian Orthodox Church during the services of Holy Week. “Tears came into my eyes that had nothing to do with human emotion,” he recalled in the late 1990s. “I don’t know what you’d call them, but they had nothing to do with joy and they had nothing to do with sorrow. In a sort of way they were tears of joy/sorrow, a mixture of the two. There was a deep, timeless compunction in this chant.” Tavener’s receptivity to Russian and, later, to Greek Orthodox tradition directly informed the evolution of his musical style, delivering intense prayer-like works to the concert hall and liturgical pieces to the Orthodox liturgy. Orthodox Vigil Service was written in 1984 and first performed at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. The monumental work, written in English and lasting around two hours in performance, includes a spellbinding setting of The Lord’s Prayer, which opens flower-like as each line unfolds to blossom with the closing plea for delivery from evil.

It is not too fanciful to imagine Tavener as a latter-day George Herbert, deepening his spiritual practice in rural England while creating treasures of sacred art. Both men suffered from chronic ill health, both ended their days in the countryside, Tavener at his home in Dorset, Herbert as rector of the Wiltshire village of Bemerton. And both cultivated a directness of expression in their works as the ground for transcendence. Tavener’s setting of Love bade me welcome, among the best known of Herbert’s religious poems, was commissioned in 1985 to mark the enthronement of the Bishop of Winchester. Traces of Eastern liturgical chant surface in the work’s main melody, voiced at first above an octave drone in the alto part before being repeated in various vocal combinations between slow-moving choral chants, distinctively Russian in style.

Silence stands at the heart of Tavener’s Psalm 121, both real and metaphysical, measured and eternal. The piece, intended by its composer to be performed with ‘Byzantine grandeur’, was written in 1989 for the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. As with so many of Tavener’s compositions, the tonal edifice of ‘I will lift up mine eyes to the hills’ is built upon a drone, the ison of Byzantine sacred music, symbol of the everlasting. Its marriage of sound and silence bears the richest fruit when performed in sacred space, the territory of the divine, the place by virtue of which, according to Mircea Eliade, “the world is resanctified in every part”. Tavener’s sonorous psalm setting, in which each syllable of text is matched almost exclusively to a single chord, flows from sacred tradition without being drowned by it.

Tavener completed his first settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis in December 1986. The paired works were created for King’s College, Cambridge, the ‘Collegium Regale’, and first performed in King’s College Chapel in April 1987. The Dean of King’s College encouraged Tavener to include the refrain ‘Greater in honour than the cherubim’, iterated between the Magnificat verses in the Orthodox service of Matins. The grace notes prominent in the melodic writing, reminiscent of the ‘breaks’ in the voice common in Byzantine chant, and the intensity of the ‘cherubim’ refrains contribute to the Magnificat’s mounting fervour, which in turn finds its resolution in the Lesser Doxology, ‘Glory be to the Father’, and meditative stillness of the ensuing Nunc dimittis, the latter scored for subdivided adult male voices.

Song for Athene was, according to Tavener’s poignant note, “written in memory of Athene Hariades, who died tragically in March 1993. Her inner and outer beauty was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church. The text is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Orthodox Funeral Service.” The work moved a global audience when it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in September 1997. For this recording, dedicated to the composer’s memory, Wells Cathedral Choir follows Tavener’s authorised change of text, intended to fit the piece for use at the funeral of a man or boy, with ‘servant’ substituted for the original’s ‘handmaid’.

Abundant compassion governs the ethos of Prayer for the healing of the sick, a tender setting of words from the Orthodox service of Holy Unction, one of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church. The piece, in common with Song for Athene, sets a text by Mother Thekla, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Dormition at Whitby and a key figure in Tavener’s development at the time, his ‘spiritual mother’. “Very quickly she saw the problems I was having writing music for which I had no contemporary model,” he recalled of their first meetings in 1986. “She saw that I could not go on doing what I had done so far.” Prayer for the healing of the sick, composed in 1998, conveys the nature of ascetic devotion, stripped of earthly desire and imbued with kindness.

The metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, who shared common ancestry with George Herbert and took inspiration from his life and work, experienced a religious conversion in the late 1640s following prolonged illness. In August 2011 Tavener set Vaughan’s visionary text They are all gone into the world of light as a memorial work. “The music came to me after attending the beautiful and moving funeral of Marianne Yacoub, wife of the eminent heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub who has been such a great support to me over many years.” Tavener suggests that his short composition be voiced ‘With the air of Paradise’, a metaphor apt to describe the spirit of so much of his work.

Andrew Stewart 2016

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