Saturday 12 April 2014

As One Who Has Slept: A Tribute to John Tavener

Reverie - photo credit Charlie Ding
Photo credit - Charlie Ding
As One Who Has Slept: A Tribute to John Tavener: Reverie, Conductor – Robbie Jacobs: Brandenburg Festival, St Dunstan in the West
Reviewed by Natalie Burch on April 10 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Music by Tavener, Part, MacMillan, Tompkins, Gibbons and Howells by young new choir

In celebration of the life of renowned choral composer John Tavener, last night’s Brandenburg Festival concert (10 April) at St Dunstan in the West brought us an intimate selection of British choral works sung by one of London’s top up and coming young choirs: Reverie conducted by Robbie Jacobs. A fairly recent addition to the London choral scene, Reverie draws on a successful group of young professionals under the directorship of Robbie Jacobs to bring us a fresh sound with a remarkably sensitive and innovative use of musical colour. The group focuses largely on repertoire from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and their dedication to pursuing this often undervalued sector of the repertoire is evident from their collaborations with current young composers, youth choirs and ensembles.

The programme, a selection of twelve choral works from the English choral tradition, was a perfect match for the reverent atmosphere of St Dunstan in the West. The generous acoustic of the church worked well with the frequent plain-chant and drone textures, creating an almost pious level of listening amongst the audience reflected in the total enraptured stillness after each piece. Appropriate, perhaps, as we were commemorating the life of John Tavener who died only last year.

Five of Tavener’s works were featured; the well-known Song for Athene, performed after the death of Princess Diana and The Lamb, a birthday gift for Tavener’s three year old nephew, as well as Funeral Ikos, As One Who Has Slept and finally, The Lord’s Prayer. Song for Athene was particularly effective, the chillingly dark tone of the male voices at the opening allowed a rounded choral sound to emerge from the held drones. The effect was a magical one of total cohesion that allowed voices to move in and out of the texture and colours to minutely alter without any sense of division. This approach to the ensemble was consistent throughout the Tavener songs, although it is perhaps understandable why As One Who Has Slept is not so often heard: the music was a little monotonous despite the wonderful stillness the choir achieved at points. By contrast, Funeral Ikos presented an unusually colourful interpretation. The score of this work has unusually few performance instructions but Robbie Jacobs’ decision to split the choir into two trios and chorus meant a much larger palette of texture and dynamic was at his disposal; needless to say, these were utilised with imagination.

Particular highlights from the rest of the programme included James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The choir produced a remarkably pure yet full bodied sound that brought the gloriously crunchy harmonies fully to life. In a piece of such contrasts, the transitions were masterfully managed by Jacobs and Poppy Ewence’s fearsomely high solo’s throughout the piece showed impressive poise. Similarly, in Vaughan-Williams’ Valiant for Truth, the lush swelling and dying away of sound was controlled very naturally by Jacobs. There was some wonderful attention to articulation from the choir in this piece giving a really super clarity amongst the washes of sound. This Marriage, the composer of which, Ed Rex, was actually singing, was especially well suited to the choir as a tight-knit ensemble. This was a perfect example of how a very still texture and delicate treatment of it can be absolutely entrancing. Alongside this collection of modern works were two from the renaissance tradition. Orlando Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David was a little lost in the acoustic and was not as clean as it could have been, but Tompkins’ When David Heard proved the choir’s ability to balance solo voices within tight rhythmic structures of more complex polyphony.

The real strength of Reverie’s performance was their ability to engage. It is so unusual for the conductor to leave the podium and actually speak to the audience, but through his introduction of the music Robbie let us into the world of each piece which made the listening experience so much more fulfilling. Paired with the confidence of the ensemble and their youthful approach to interpretation this made for a truly exciting presentation of our great choral tradition.

Arvo Pärt – Bogoroditse Djevo
John Tavener – Song for Athene
Orlando Gibbons – Hosanna to the Son of David
James MacMillan – Christus Vincitv
John Tavener – The Lamb
Herbert Howells – Haec Dies
John Tavener – As One Who Has Slept
Thomas Tompkins – When David Heard
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Valiant For Truth
John Tavener – Funeral Ikos
Ed Rex – This Marriage
John Tavener – The Lord’s Prayer
Reviewed by Natalie Burch
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