Clare College Choir, Cambridge

John Tavener: Ex Maria Virgine

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Call it the breakthrough of John Tavener, or the mainstreaming, depending on your perspective. Beginning around the turn of the millennium, this British exemplar of holy minimalism began to move away from his identification with the Eastern Orthodox faith. At the same time, his musical language broadened, maintaining its repetitive sound but adding a new dramatic spirit and a richer harmonic palette. For a long time Tavener was the province of choirs, and engineers, who specialized in his music, but here he definitively moves into the British cathedral tradition with performances by (and music commissioned by) the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and production by none other than the dean of pleasing British religious music, John Rutter. The central work here, Ex Maria Virgine (2005), is Marian in theme and was dedicated to the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall on the occasion of their nuptials, with an appropriately joyous mood. It gives a good idea of the direction in which Tavener's style is moving, with startling choral effects such as the repeated staccato notes in the second movement, "Nowell! Nowell! Out of your sleep," with the organ playing a role that harks back to the French late Romantics, and with massive planes of harmonic tension in the ninth movement, "Unto us is born a son." That movement has a macaronic text (adapted from a Latin hymn of the fifteenth century), and the big Mahlerian climax is assigned to the verse "O and A, and A and O/Cum cantibus in choro./Let our merry organ go/Benedicamus Domino." There are 10 movements in all, using a variety of texts of which Rutter himself would have been proud. The choir itself brings a big sound under confident control, although text intelligibility is a problem, even with the booklet texts in front of you (and some of those are missing due to copyright restrictions). It's quite a powerful work, with "minimalist" movements set off against more conventional ones, and many listeners will find that Tavener is accomplishing something parallel to what American composer John Adams has made of his minimalist background, although the philosophical orientations of the two could not be more different. The rest of the disc is filled out with pieces, some of them familiar by now, that offer music closer to what one expects from Tavener, with repeated figures and static harmonic fields, although the other contemporary piece, Marienhymne, has a similar harmonic edge. Rutter's production is as excellent as one might expect, and this is a release that will be cherished by Tavener fans, although perhaps not so much by Tavener fanatics.

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