John Tavener

The Hidden Face

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The Hidden Face is one half of the Harmonia Mundi label's debut of the British viol ensemble Fretwork -- the other half is a CD of Ottaviano dei Petrucci's music (#907291). Tavener's music has been prominent on the label since 1999 when Eternity's Sunrise was issued and nominated for a Grammy Award. This set features three first recordings for viols and countertenor (Michael Chance), as well as a retranscription of the "Sanctus-Benedictus" section of his In Nomine (written for four voices originally in Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas) for six viols. The title track was written in 1996 and first performed by Chance and an oboist with an ensemble of distant modern strings. Nipson was written especially for Fretwork, as was Apokatástasis, a work for viols, counter tenor, and Tibetan bowls. In addition are rearrangements of Purcell's An Evening Hymn, Picforth's all-but-unheard yet stunningly beautiful Nomine (a section of the plainsong), and the two-part In Nomine by John Ward performed as written for a consort of viols. The Tavener pieces here are the most accessible the composer has written in terms of their use of both Eastern and Western scales and modalities. On the title selection, the long, quiet, slowly swirling ostinato playing in downward scalar turns is lovely in its restraint, painting the perfect backdrop for the oboe to enter with its Eastern thematic and Chance to echo it in Western terms -- as if the cantorial prayer were being transmuted across time and space, with the strings as a bridge through the ages. It is not a personal mark that Tavener leaves on the score, but that of an ikon painting, impersonal, beyond language, with all parts drawing the listener into the heart of silence at the center of the piece rather than to its various elements. Nipson is a 20-minute work in six sections for as consort of viols and countertenor -- two treble, two tenor, one bass -- the first and last of which are palindromic, based on the setting of a Byzantine palindrome of glory and repentance. The notion of inner silence is present through all six parts, and thus the drift and centering of the work falls upon the singer, who rises above the wash of restraint and subtle timbral colors. The brief Apokatástasis for countertenor, six viols, and Tibetan bowls is stunning in its movement toward stillness, but all too brief (coming in under three minutes). The rest of the program is completely in line with these glorious performances -- especially the Purcell. Fretwork's debut for Harmonia Mundi is a success in pristine sound, performance, and emotional appeal to a wide range of listeners.