Monday 19 May 2014

Singing cellos in John Tavener - Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival

Guy Johnston
Guy Johnston
John Tavener - The Protecting Veil, Requiem: Guy Johnston, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, David Atherton: Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival at St David's Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 17 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Two of Tavener's large scale works bring the Vale of Glamorgan Festival to a spectacular conclusion

John Tavener was one of the featured composers in this year's Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival and so it was appropriate that the final concert in the festival (17 May 2014) featured two of the composer's large scale works, performed in St. David's Hall, Cardiff. David Atherton conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with cellist Guy Johnston as the soloist in Tavener's The Protecting Veil. Then the orchestra was joined by the BBC National Chorus of Wales, cellist Josephine Knight, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and tenor Nicholas Mulroy for Tavener's Requiem.

The Protecting Veil was written in 1998, originally a commission from cellist Steven Isserlis though Isserlis had envisaged a work of around 10 minutes whereas The Protecting Veil lasts some 45 minutes. The piece is inspired by the vision of the Mother of God appearing at a time when Constantinople was threatened by the Saracens in the 10th century; she appeared spreading out her Veil as protective shelter for the Christians.

As might be expected from Tavener, the work is hardly a conventional concerto-like work. The solo cello part is constant throughout the piece, with the cello providing a continuous stream of song-like melody, much of it very high in the cello's range which gives it a lovely sweetness. The accompaniment is from string orchestra only, and the orchestra seems to comment, support and occasionally dissent; there is none of the creative dialogue which characterises more traditional Western Classical concertante works. Whilst Tavener's style is very much his own, his concept of the relationship between soloist and ensemble harks back to the baroque era.

Tavener has articulated the work in eight sections, each referring to one of the various feasts dedicated to the Virgin (her birth, Annunciation, Incarnation etc). The work plays continuously and the opening and closing sections both use the same material. The fifth section, which relates to the Virgin's lament at the foot of the Cross, is for unaccompanied solo cello and forms the centre point of the work, giving it a degree of symmetry. Within this Tavener uses stylised gestures which are repeated, thus helping to articulate the structure of the piece.

It is not a showy work, there are few opportunities for pure display from the soloist though the third section included some heterophony with the solo line getting quite agitated. But the main requirement from the soloist was to provide a beautifully lyrical sung line, with sweetness of tone and of course accurate pitching in the very high sections. This Guy Johnston did in spades, impressing from the very opening where his sweet high tone contrasted with the bass growling.

One thing which did worry me slightly was that when the string orchestra was playing at full volume, they tended to cover Johnston's solo cello part. This balance issue may have been deliberate on Tavener's part, as his conception of the solo part representing The Mother of God is hardly conventional.

Ultimately how you respond to The Protecting Veil depends on how you react to Tavener's mystical vision and his re-invention of the contemporary classical idiom to suit his own particular world view. (That is not to say that the music is simple, Tavener was perfectly capable of writing highly complex music if it was necessary.) What was not in doubt was the beauty and sheer visionary commitment which Johnston brought to the solo part, ably supported and sustained by David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Josephine Knight
Josephine Knight
After the interval, the size of the forces on the platform had increased. The strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were joined by two timpani players, two percussionists (playing a variety of gongs, drums and temple bowls), ten brass players and the BBC National Chorus of Wales, plus solo cello Josephine Knight, solo soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and solo tenor Nicholas Mulroy.

John Tavener's Requiem was written in 2007, a product of his late period interest in pan-spirituality with a text taken from the Roman Catholic liturgy as well as from the Qu'ran plus Sufi texts and Hindi texts from the Upanishads. Tavener's own programme note (reprinted in the programme book) describes how the work was written to be performed in a vast cruciform space, without explaining the exact distribution of forces. At St. David's Hall we had the strings and soloists at the very front of the stage, with percussion and timpani behind. Then there was a large gap, with the the brass placed just in front of the choir which was some considerable distance from the conductor. The result looked a little curious, but no doubt went some way to realising Tavener's ideas (with the cruciform representing the intersection of the temporal with the eternal) in a space which is a long way from cruciform.

In fact, the Requiem was written for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral with Tavener deliberately using the spatial possibilities of the building. The work was commissioned for the Liverpool's Capital of Culture programme in 2008. It was premiered by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists including Josephine Knight and Elin Manahan Thomas (both of whom were repeating their roles at St. David's Hall).

The Requiem is divided into seven movements, Primordial White Light, Kyrie Eleison, Advaita Vedanta 'The Still Point' (The Absolute and no other), Kali's Dance, Advaita Vedanta 'The Still Point' (The Absolute and no other), Interlude, Ananda.

Tavener's programme note explained a lot of his inspiration and thinking behind the work. He talks of the 'solo cello symbolising primordial Light, which appears at death and journeys with us towards the state of oneness or Paradise. The cello travels towards that oneness through the extinction and total annihilation of the false self (or Ego)'. This is very helpful in preparing you for the ideas which the work deals in but it does not let you know exactly what you are going to hear. I am rather reminded of attending a performance of Messiaen's Turangalila symphony when I was a student and Messiaen's own programme note analysed the work entirely according to colour. There was something similar about Tavener's note, and I felt that it would have been helpful for the programme book to have included an expanded commentary explaining exactly what we were going to hear. Tavener was very much inventing his own rituals, and somehow we needed a bit more than the composer's mystical vision to guide us.

The first two movements did indeed weave a mystical, visionary fabric from the various musical components with Tavener never using all his forces at once. The choir sang the words of the Roman Catholic liturgy (the Requiem Aeternam and then the Kyrie Eleison) with the two soloists intoning a variety of other texts. The soloists' words were not clear so I cannot be certain what they were singing, but the lack of clarity was mostly Tavener's fault as he wrote for the vocal soloists in rapturously lyrical cantilena. The result was fascinating and full of rather slow ecstasy. The second movement did indeed sound a little like Messiaen without the birdsong. Tavener created a rich interaction between his various forces without ever reaching catharsis.

This catharsis appeared abruptly in the fourth movement. The solo cello started a fast rhythmic dance, and was joined by the strings. Then the chorus and brass started in a different more solid rhythm with the chorus intoning the words of the Dies Irae, the percussion and organ added a further layer. Tavener did not develop the music in the conventional sense, it just was. But the sound was simply astonishing, exciting and rather threatening in its steady inevitability. At various points things stopped abruptly and Mulroy had some lyrically ecstatic phrases, then the dance continued.

After the dance, the symmetrical structure of the work meant that we somehow went into reverse but though Tavener was revisiting his earlier material it was all changed with lyrical ecstasy from the chorus eventually developing into a Protecting Veil like moment for the solo cello singing high above the accompaniment.

For the final section, Tavener's note describes as pulsating with settings of 'Aham Asmi', Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh', 'Egho imi O ON' and 'an al Haqq' in Sankrit, Hebrew, Greek and Arabic respectively: 'I am that - I am God'. What we heard was a magically pulsating stasis, with Tavener utilising all his forces in multiple layers all doing something different. As with the middle section, there was no development it simply was: but what it was, was indeed perfectly thrilling and ecstatic. Finally this texture died away gradually, leaving just the solo cello. For much of the work, the solo cello part was rather conceptual, we could see Knight busily playing but could not hear her. But at the end of the journey she emerged from the texture and brought this remarkable work to an end.

The performance was a magnificent achievement for all concerned. Both Manahan Thomas and Mulroy sang with beautiful, pure elegant tone (exactly what Tavener wanted I suspect), with Knight giving us some fine rapturous cello playing. David Atherton's role as conductor had more than an element of traffic policeman about it, but he clearly brought out the best in his forces and the resulting performance will stay in the mind for a long time. I am still not quite sure what was happening, but Tavener's concept of ritual was surely akin to that of the church where you can be changed by being present even if you are not sure what it means.

Sir John Tavener's widow was in the audience, and before the concert there was an extended pre-concert talk in which John Metcalf talked about John Tavener with James Rushton, the composer's long term friend and publisher.
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