David Hill / Gennady Rozhdestvensky

John Tavener: The Protecting Veil; The Last Sleep of the Virgin; Choral Music

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EMI's release of this two-disc tribute to John Tavener is a collection of his greatest hits taken from performances in their archives. British cellist Steven Isserlis is featured in The Protecting Veil, for cello and strings, essentially a concerto in which the cello almost continuously plays, although it differs from a traditional concerto, in which the opposition between the orchestra and the soloist heightens the musical drama. In this case, conflict and drama are minimized; the solo cello is a serene, meditative voice, sometimes suspended, sometimes soaring over the entirely supportive accompaniment of the orchestra. While it is idiomatically far removed from the works of Messiaen, its sense of ecstasy lost in timelessness and its supreme indifference to western conventions of musical development reveal Tavener to be a spiritual cousin of the French mystic's. Isserlis, for whom the piece was written, performs with searing passion; his intense playing is achingly, almost painfully poignant, and he negotiates the treacherously high tessitura with unfailingly full, pure tone and with flawless intonation. Gennady Rozhdestvensky, leading the London Symphony Orchestra, provides a superbly supportive accompaniment. The Last Sleep of the Virgin, for string quartet and handbells, inhabits a cooler, more reflective, and less emotionally charged sonic world than The Protecting Veil. Its meditative atmosphere places it closer to the "Holy Minimalism," which is often the label used to describe the work of composers like Tavener, Pärt, and Górecki. (In an homage to Pärt, Tavener tucks the theme of his colleague's Fratres into the music's transparent textures.) The Chilingirian Quartet gives it an atmospheric and luminous performance that sounds both chaste and sensuous. The sound in both works is clean and atmospheric.

The Winchester Cathedral Choir, a choir of men and boys, is featured in a selection of Tavener's choral music. David Hill leads the group in performances of remarkably focused intensity. Most of the works performed here move at a glacial pace, requiring exceptional discipline in maintaining a sustained tone quality that is pure and controlled, and the choir is fully successful in bringing it off. In The Lament of the Mother of God, for a cappella chorus and soprano soloist, the choir essentially provides a series of harmonically complex drones, some going on uninterrupted for minutes, over which the soloist floats a serene, chant-like melody, and the effect is mesmerizing. Hymns of Paradise, for boy's voices, bass soloist, organ, and six violins, has considerably more activity and variety both texturally and rhythmically, but its mood is still one of rapt wonder and timelessness. Thunder Entered Her, accompanied by organ and handbells, uses similar compositional means to create a work of spacious awe and mystery. David Dunnett leads the choir in a committed and dramatic performance of God Is With Us (A Christmas Proclamation). It actually does have more the character of a proclamation than an anthem, with tenor William Kendall delivering a stentorian announcement of the birth of Christ. The sound in the choral works is immaculate and manages to be absolutely clear and clean, but with a good amount of resonance, creating a sense of a vast performing space, which is ideal for this repertoire.

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