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Hyperion Records

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Photograph of Sir John Tavener on the Greek island of Aegina in January 1981 by Peter Phillips.
Track(s) taken from GIMSE404
Recording details: January 1984
Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: April 2014
Total duration: 42 minutes 14 seconds

'Perhaps the time is right for the musical establishment (and the record industry) to begin to recognize Tavener as one of our most gifted and important composers of choral music. I hope so, for a talent so prodigious and special as his appears all too infrequently in today’s climate of intellectually orientated creativity … Ikon of Light dates from 1984, and is arguably one of his most sublime creations … The Tallis Scholars have a very special affinity and affection for Tavener’s music (he has written a number of works with them in mind) and this is evident from their committed performance of this penetrating and visionary work … superbly recorded in the Gimell tradition … a moving and richly rewarding programme that deserves to win many friends' (Gramophone)

Ikon of Light comes steeped in the traditional soundscape of Orthodox worship and is timeless in its musical response to the idea of an icon opening a window on eternity. It was commissioned by The Tallis Scholars whose atmospheric early recording is hard to beat’ (BBC Music Magazine)

Ikon of Light
composer
1983; written for The Tallis Scholars who gave the first performance with the Leda String Trio at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1984
author of text

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ikon of Light was given its premiere by The Tallis Scholars and the Leda String Trio at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1984. It is a work that encapsulates in many ways, and in monumental style, the composer’s espousal of an astounding simplicity to convey highly complex theological concepts. Tavener has recourse in Ikon of Light to the mystical texts of St Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022). It is symmetrically structured, centred on an extended, radiant setting of St Symeon’s Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit:

Come, true light. Come, life eternal. Come, hidden mystery. Come, treasure without name. Come, reality beyond all words. Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end. Come, light that knows no evening. Come, unfailing expectation of the saved. Come, raising of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.

St Symeon’s writings are suffused with the idea of God as light. He received a vision of the Divine Light when aged about twenty, and seven years later became a monk. Tavener’s setting of this invocation allows him to give full rein to his melodic gifts, over a range of four octaves, and the gradual increase in intensity and the sense of movement-within-stasis create an extraordinary and intense luminosity fully expressive of St Symeon’s vision. The melodic material is essentially derived from a descending scalic figure (G to C), with subsequent melodic extensions, passed between each voice and accompanied by a drone. This figure builds to a sustained, luminous full-choir drone on a C major chord (actually ending on a first inversion). There is then an interlude for string trio, and at the choir’s re-entry, the thematic scale returns in inversion, built now on a minor scale and melodically different. As in the first section, the drone builds to a full chord, this time G minor. Another interlude follows, built on the inverted scale, and then choir and trio come radiantly together, with the original melodic continuation of the scale stated in stretto.

The shorter movements on either side are related to each other symmetrically – I to VI, II to VII and III to V. They amplify and comment on the central idea of light: Tavener simply sets, in Greek, the words phos (light), dhoxa (glory) and epiphania (shining forth), and the Trisagion (‘Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal, have mercy upon us’). The four outer movements, ‘Phos I’, ‘Dhoxa’, ‘Phos II’ and ‘Epiphania’, are apparently static sonic blocks, but in fact they have recourse to the composer’s frequently employed techniques of canon and palindrome, often resulting in considerable dissonance, and are organized around very precisely indicated silences (parts of the above discussion are drawn from the chapter on Tavener’s music in my forthcoming book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music).

from notes by Ivan Moody © 2014

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