France Springuel

Tavener: The Protecting Veil; The Last Sleep of the Virgin

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The "holy minimalism" of John Tavener and the hotshot American engineering of the Telarc label -- it sounds like a match made in the Eastern Orthodox heaven Tavener tries to evoke in some of his works. And so it is, to some degree. Both works on this album are instrumental, but they are hardly secular; The Protecting Veil (1989), Tavener's first major instrumental composition, refers to the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God in the Orthodox tradition, a commemoration of a tenth century vision of the woman known to the Orthodox as the Mother of God, in which she appeared in the sky and spread a sheltering veil over Greek Christian troops. The solo cello part symbolizes her song, and the work, in Tavener's words, was "an attempt to make a lyrical icon in sound rather than wood." This performance by the Belgian orchestra I Fiamminghi and its solo cellist France Springuel is smooth and expert but adds no new dimension beyond what earlier performances have captured. The real highlight of the disc is the lesser-known The Last Sleep of the Virgin for string orchestra and handbells. It also refers to an Orthodox observance, that of the Falling Asleep and Burial by the Apostles of the Mother of God. The added wrinkle here is that Tavener wrote the work as he himself prepared to undergo major heart surgery. It is a remarkable suggestion of a state between life and death, with the handbells serving both to introduce individual sections of the music and to suggest the tolling of church bells at a funeral. Tavener directs the performers to play "at the threshold of audibility" -- and it is here that Telarc's engineers really show their stuff. It's hard to think of another recording with such a consistently low level of dynamics that nevertheless seems richly scored and holds one's attention all the way through. This disc makes a fine present for the audiophile with high-end equipment and for the Tavener lover alike.

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