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Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)

Tavener conducts Tavener

Cappella Nova, Alan Tavener (conductor)
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Recording details: December 2014
Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2015
Total duration: 74 minutes 22 seconds

Cover artwork: Last Judgement by William Blake (1757-1827)
Petworth House, West Sussex / Bridgeman Art Library, London

A new album charting the professional and personal connections between celebrated composer Sir John Tavener and Cappella Nova under its conductor Alan Tavener. The programme includes works from across their twenty-five-year collaboration, beginning and ending with choruses from the first piece Tavener wrote for Cappella Nova, Resurrection.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'As an addition to the composer’s recorded catalogue, ‘Tavener Conducts Tavener’ is valuable' (Gramophone)
Sing as though you are in a state of grace: you won’t know what that’s like, but it’s lovely. (John Tavener, 1990)

In 1988, as Glasgow prepared for its year as European Capital of Culture, Cappella Nova was offered one of the city’s major arts commissions; without hesitation, we told them that this must go to John Tavener. Although we share his name and Alan is his third cousin, we had never met, so our first contact was to be purely professional. We went to London to ask Tavener if he would write a work of about 45 minutes’ duration. He listened to our proposal with characteristic courtesy and then announced, firmly, that the only piece he wanted to compose at that time would be three hours long, require numerous soloists, seven groups of singers and instrumentalists and a large professional chorus, and be called Resurrection. He then told his dumbfounded new-found relatives that he would gladly write this work for the modest fee offered by the City of Glasgow. Moved and excited by John’s vision but downcast at the prospect of finding funds for the performance, we returned home, only to be given the incredible news that the resources would be found to premiere what was at that time the composer’s magnum opus.

There were more obstacles to overcome, not least health and safety regulations in Glasgow Cathedral, which prevented the placing high in the clerestory of the singers for the ‘Paradise choir’ that opens and closes Resurrection. Instead, it was pre-recorded by Philip Hobbs (producer of this album), who for the actual performance then placed speakers on high to achieve the desired effect. John came to the recording sessions for the ‘Paradise choir’ in 1990, when he focused the singers’ efforts with such memorable encouragements as ‘Imagine that you are Adam and Eve tip-toeing through Paradise’.

The obvious place to start with this tribute recording was, therefore, to re-record those choruses to bookend our very personal sequence of works: some written for us or for other family members, and some among his last choral inspirations, many of them recorded here for the first time.

Resurrection gave birth to Ikon of the Nativity. At John’s request, we had commissioned the Russian artist Kirill Sokolov to paint a large Ikon of the Resurrection to hang in Glasgow Cathedral for the premiere. This had thereafter to be stored in our hall, where it would surprise guests as they came out of the bathroom; so we were delighted when Kirill told us that John would like to give it to his fiancée, Maryanna, as a wedding present. Even such an inconvenient company asset had to have some kind of formal send-off, so Cappella Nova’s board of directors asked John if he would compose a brief Christmas work in exchange. John asked how many singers would be on stage: the answer was, which is why Ikon of the Nativity blossoms into 11 parts in the central section. The piece was published together with an item also heard here, O, do not move, as the first of Two Ikons of the Nativity.

Cappella Nova’s sister ensemble, Canty, co-commissioned Two Hadiths for the launch of the Minster Quarter initiative in York; it received its premiere in the nave of York Minster in 2008. John was fascinated by William Taylor’s harp collection and chose the bray harp for its curious buzzing effect, evocative of the sitar.

In 2012, Cappella Nova celebrated 30 years of existence with CNXXX events featuring 30 works, including a number of new commissions. A long-standing supporter, the mindfulness and meditation teacher Jyotipakshini, offered to commission a work from John on Buddhist themes: the result was A Buddhist miniature, which receives its first recording here.

Among other family connections in this sequence, John’s most famous work, The Lamb, was composed for his young nephew, Simon. Much less well known is Take him, earth, for cherishing, which was written for the funeral of John’s brother, Roger; it is a setting of tortuous dissonance and the most profound grief.

When it came to selecting a composer from whom to commission a tribute to John, there was only one name in our minds: Ivan Moody, a former composition student of John’s, an Orthodox priest, and also a friend. His Dante setting O isplendor speaks for us all.

John’s faith was famous, his spiritual journey candidly expressed and fascinating to all who knew him and to the many thousands of people worldwide touched, changed and challenged by his music. He combined in the penultimate work on this album the spirit of Christmas renewal, the mourning of the friends and relatives of its young dedicatee, and his own yearning for transcendence: O that we were there!

Rebecca Tavener © 2015

To be asked by Cappella Nova to write a work in memory of Sir John Tavener, who was not only my teacher but my friend, and koumbaros at my wedding, was a great honour. John had an enormous influence on my life, and to be commissioned specifically for a commemorative recording by an outstanding choir seemed the most conducive circumstance possible for the composing of such a work.

The texts chose themselves. During the course of 2013, I had completed my Dante Trilogy, which sets texts from various parts of the Divine Comedy; but I continued to be fascinated by this poetry and most particularly the Paradiso, which has been somewhat overlooked historically in favour of the drama of the Inferno. I thus chose this description of the light of God—John was most certainly a luminous composer—and added to it the Kontakion for the Departed from the Greek Orthodox funeral service, as a personal prayer. (The music at this point quotes the received Byzantine chant for this text.) The Dante I set in the original Italian: I believe that John would have approved of the combination of Italian and Greek, East and West, Latin Renaissance and Byzantium. Certainly Dante was the subject of my last conversation with him.

Eternal memory!

Ivan Moody © 2015

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