Over the centuries, religious choral and liturgical music has had many composers and practitioners, and the current Cambridge Music Festival on Friday evening was remembering the tenth anniversary of the death of Sir John Tavener, a distinguished figure in an ancient tradition.
The programme, in the presence of Lady Tavener and members of her family, and overseen by King’s College Cambridge Director of Music, Daniel Hyde, not only included works by Tavener himself, but also those who were influenced by him, and those who in turn had been influences on him.
We heard a range of beautiful music, contemplative and spiritual as well as, in the case of Tavener in particular, compositions strikingly original, often deeply personal. Two soloists performed, cellist Natalie Clein and Paul Greally, final year organ scholar at King’s, while the BBC Singers were the power behind the choral work.
The evening contained a mixture of works, some sorrowful, some emphasising light and redemption, beginning with ‘Crux Fidelis’ (Faithful Cross) a motet in sombre mode for Good Friday by Sir Lennox Berkeley with whom Tavener had studied at the Royal Academy of Music.
‘Thrinos’, another traditional Good Friday lament, composed by Tavener to commemorate a lost friend, and for another of Taverner’s friends (and his collaborator) cellist Steven Isserlis to play, continued, appropriately, the sombreness of the motet.
Performing on cello was former BBC Young Musician of the Year (1994) Natalie Clein whose rendition of this moving piece was flawless in tone, its mourning strains becoming audibly lower and lower as the piece progressed, until finally they gently faded away into silence.
A setting of George Herbert’s poem ‘Vertue’ by the current Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir (attending the concert) and one-time pupil of Tavener’s, introduced light and hope; a hope present too in ‘Svyati’ (Holy), a work of Tavener’s whose music represents a dialogue between icon/priest (cello) and people (Chorus), as the body of a deceased person is borne from the church in a funeral ceremony.
‘Svyati’ is an Orthodox counterpart to the antiphon ‘In Paradisum’ (Into Paradise) which is sung at the conclusion of the Latin Requiem Mass, and is sung here in old Church Slavonic.
Tavener converted to the Orthodox Church, its liturgy providing only one of a variety of religious experiences from which he took inspiration, and which his music explored. The historical depth of its tradition seems in this piece to be underpinned by an affective drone which adds to the solemnity of the occasion for which it is written. Once again Natalie Clein’s engrossing strains faded into oblivion on a single high note, as of a soul aspiring heavenwards.
Tavener’s impulse to find an innovative voice was reflected in his admiration for the work of Michael Tippett, especially ‘A Child of Our Time’ whose composition took structural inspiration from the oratorios of Handel and the Passions of Bach.
But Tippet employs African-American spirituals to give to suffering and oppression the fresh sense of a universality often absent from traditional sacred music. The BBC singers gave a lovely performance here, with prominence at different times given to individual singers while they were still singing within the body of the ensemble.
After the interval, a movement from solemnity to brightness came with composer and arranger John Rutter’s ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’. Rutter (present too on Friday evening) had been a contemporary of Tavener at Highgate School, and this anthem was written for the re-dedication of a stained glass memorial window at Gloucester Cathedral, commemorating the organist and prolific composer of Anglican Church music, Herbert Howells.
It made for an interesting continuity with Olivier Messiaen, another important influence on Tavener. Messiaen describes a form of synaesthesia where he saw specific colours in musical harmonies, and commented on how they continually change ‘like those on a stained window’.
Deployed among three of Messiaen’s nine meditations from La Nativité du Seigneur, performed by Paul Greally, were Tavener’s devotional ‘Hymn to the Mother of God’, Judith Weir’s setting of ‘Ave Regina Caeloroum’ commissioned for the 750th anniversary of Merton College, Oxford, and Tavener’s setting of part of William Blake’s ‘Cradle Song’ from the ‘Innocence’ lyrics.
Blake was a mystic and a visionary and unsurprisingly one of Tavener’s favourite poets. The BBC Singers tenderly evoked the state of infancy in the gently rocking rhythm of a piece where the Christ-child’s innocence is also shadowed by the sufferings which are lying in store for him.
Paul Greally’s performance was a true display of virtuosity, allowing the King’s organ (restored to pristine grandeur in recent years) to reveal its wonderful potential, especially in Messiaen’s final movement, ‘Dieu parmi nous’ (God amongst us).
‘Tavener Remembered’ concluded with the composer’s incantation ‘Song for Athene’ written in response to the death of a family friend who had been killed in a cycling accident.
But for many people it will be forever associated with the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, the music accompanying her cortège as it left Westminster Abbey. Its drone and hushed choric dissonance seemed to add overwhelming poignancy to an already emotionally-charged occasion. It was the BBC Singers who had performed ‘Song for Athene’ on that sad day, a piece of music which has been responsible for Tavener becoming much more widely known, and one among so many of his extraordinarily powerful works that will ensure that he is forever remembered within any history of his illustrious predecessors.
The BBC Singers returned to sing his hauntingly beautiful setting of Blake’s ‘Innocence’ lyric, ‘The Lamb’, premiered on 22 December 1982 at Winchester cathedral, then performed as a brand new work in King’s College Chapel two days later as part of the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
This was perhaps a moment to reflect on Justin Lee’s, the Cambridge Music Festival Director’s ‘warning’ in the programme notes that the incomparable BBC Singers had recently been almost disbanded in yet another proposed cost-effective intervention, but were now thankfully reprieved.
Anyone attending ‘Tavener Remembered’ might take this to heart when considering that artists and performers of this stature are able to create, where short-sighted bureaucracies can too often only destroy.
As BBC presenter Ian Skelly, MC for the evening, reminded us, a recording of this memorable, admirably constructed and deeply moving concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Tuesday 21 November.
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