Friday, 7 February 2014

The Veil of the Temple

The Veil of the Temple
John Tavener - The Veil of the Temple: The Choir of the Temple Church, The Holst Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Patricia Rozario, Stephen Layton
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 7 2014
Star rating: 5.0

A wonderful memorial to an astonishing composer

John Tavener wrote The Veil of the Temple in 2003 as a commission from The Temple Church for an all night vigil. The resulting work, on a huge scale, is for choir, orchestra and soprano soloist. In 2004 Tavener then produced a reduced version of the work designed to be suitable for concert use. The full Veil of the Temple was premiered by the Choir of the Temple Church, the Holst Singers, the English Chamber Orchestra and soprano Patricia Rozario, conducted by Stephen Layton. And it is these same forces which perform the concert version of the work on the recording which has been re-issued on Signum Classics.

Before we start examining the work it is probably worth quoting from Sir John Tavener's article in the CD booklet. 'The Veil of the Temple is an attempt to restore the sacred imagination... It takes place at night, as we wait for the withdrawal of night and the coming of dawn; and, by its gradual Cosmic Rising, it attemps to bring about a transformation from the Old Temple to the New. The Veil is a 'Vigil', not quite a liturgical ceremony. Through its eight cycles, gradually rising an octave in pitch, it attempts to reveal the mystery of the death and burial of Christ through his Rising. In creating man, God entrusted him with the task of completing the Temple, and himself becoming the Temple of God. This, anyway, is the aspiration.'


The full work is in eight cycles, each having a similar structure with a sequence of solo and choral moments . The texts are Tavener's own selection taken from the Orthodox tradition as well as a variety of other religious traditions. The result is a complex, contemplative liturgical narrative which climaxes with the eighth cycle. The structure is highly complex, with much of it not apparent on first listening. For instance, the Prayer of the Heart which starts in cycle one as a single voice becomes a twelve part motet by the time it reaches cycle twelve. In his notes on his website Tavener talks of  'The awesome sound of the tam tam, temple bowls, Tibetan horn , bells, simatron and organ announce the end of the beginning.  “The sun hid it’s rays and the veil of the temple was rent from the top unto the bottom”.   This breaks the husk represented by the mosaic law.   By breaking the husk we are introduced to the Hindu world as Mary Magdalene representing the Self sings in Sanskrit the words Maya Atma, a musical seesaw of reality and illusion.'

For the reduced version Tavener has kept the eighth cycle complete with all the other cycles being reduced in size. Some, such as cycles one and four, are reduced down to two movements.

The forces used for the performance are quite substantial, with the Choir of the Temple Church numbering 37 singers, with a number of the men having gone one to become well known soloists. The Holst Singers number around 100 singers. The instrumentalist forces involve the church organ, Indian harmonium, duduk, Tibetan horn, six performers playing Tibetan temple bowls, tubular bells, and tam-tam and a brass ensemble of eight players.

The work starts from almost complete silence and much of it is quiet. If I said that it was contemplative and meditative though, that is not to imply it is not complex nor that it is not dramatic. The liturgical drama that is being played out has its share of dramatic and of noisy elements. The work is necessarily immersive, even in its reduced form. Listening to it, I thought of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an older contemporary of Tavener's. Though their two musical styles are radically different, the two share a commonality in the wish to created immersive works which extend and transcend the existing musical forms.

The performance on the disc is stupendous. Whether or not you appreciate the journey you are being taken on by the work, there are a stunning series of gloriously beautiful moments, gloriously rendered by Stephen Layton and his forces. Patricia Rozario is notable for the lovely freedom she brings to the ecstatic cantilena which Tavener writes.

The CD booklet is rather cryptic about the recording but I think what we are listening to is the recording made at the premiere of the full version, but reduced down to the manageable concert version. Whatever the fine detail, the performance is live. And it fully captures the astounding atmosphere. The recording was originally issued on RCA.

Now, I have to come clean and admit that the religious journey that Tavener wishes us to go on, does not appeal to me. This has nothing to do with the work being religious, many other do appeal to that side of my nature. But the slowly ruminant nature of Tavener's large scale constructions seem to amount to rather less than the sum of their parts. That said, there are some glorious moments and this certainly has to be one of those recordings where you feel you had to be there.

The CD booklet is full of copious articles about the work, about Tavener as well as the complete sung text along with a listing of the various sections of the full version and how the movements we are hearing fit into the greater whole. The booklet does seem to be written from the position that the reader will be willing and able to go on the journey on which Tavener wishes to take us. There seems to be no allowance for a listener coming at the work from a solely musical point of view, but that is something which will come with time.

That brings us to our final point, that the disc makes a wonderful memorial to an astonishing composer.

'I regard The Veil of the Temple as the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed.' Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener (1944 - 2013) - The Veil of the Temple (2003) [147.46]
Patricia Rosario (soprano)
The choir of the Temple Church
The Holst Singers
English Chamber Orchestra
Stephen Layton (conductor)
Recorded in The Temple Church, London 27-29 June, 1 July, 4-5 July 2003
signum classics SIGCD367  2CDs


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