Polyphony / Stephen Layton

John Tavener: Schuon Hymnen; The Second Coming; Exhortations and Kohima; Shûnya

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This recording of Tavener works dating from between 1996 and 2003 was sure to attract attention in any case; Tavener is one of the major choral composers of our time, and the works included show evidence of a significant new direction in his style. And the composer's de-conversion from the Eastern Orthodox Church seems likely to win it even more interest. "I like going to church less and less," he told the Independent in 2004. "It strikes me now that all religions are as senile as one another. But I do pray within my heart all the time." Was this shift in outlook prefigured in Tavener's music?

The answer is an emphatic yes. Although he still favors the a cappella texture (The Second Coming is accompanied by an organ), this holy minimalist over the seven-year span delimited by these works became a good deal less minimalist and in some cases not even holy. The liner notes claim that such texts as the Butterfly Dreams cycle were chosen with Christian symbolism in mind, but recent events make one wonder whether that was the case. And one of the things that apparently got Tavener in hot water with his spiritual advisor was his use of texts inspired by Sufism (Schuon Hymnen) or drawn from ancient Sanskrit writings (Shûnya). Texts aside, the music here shows a gradual but consistent evolution in the direction of harmonic complexity. Tavener's music is still slow and hypnotic in its effect, but his newer music is full of extended harmonies that bring the music to various resting places over the course of a short piece. The 1999 composition Birthday Sleep, based on a modern Welsh Christian poem, has a striking musical refrain harmonically unrelated to anything that has gone before in the individual verses -- a new effect for Tavener, and beautifully treated. The Second Coming is as dark as the poem it sets and is based on the interval of a minor second, sounded at the beginning in the organ's lowest pedals. When Tavener chooses a long and varied text (Butterfly Dreams consists of a series of short poems about butterflies, from traditions ranging from haiku to Native American song), the effect is jewel-like, with the same poetic object being viewed from a variety of harmonic perspectives. Based on the evidence here, Tavener's plans to create a musical setting of the 99 Arabic-language names for God in Islamic tradition should be really something to experience.

It takes a top-notch choir to pull off Tavener's demanding and still slow-moving music, and fortunately Polyphony and conductor Stephen Layton are equal to the task. Anyone with even a slight interest in Tavener's music, or even in the general broadening of the minimalist impulse in recent years, will want to hear this disc.

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