Tuesday 17 June 2014

The Tallis Scholars in John Tavener from 1980's

John Tavener Ikon of Light: The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips: Gimmell
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 17 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Re-issue of iconic recordings from the 1980's, the Tallis Scholars in works premiered by them

This disc is a re-issue of recordings made in the 1980's of by Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars of some of John Tavener's iconic works. Peter Phillips conducts Ikon of Light (with members of the Chilingirian String Quartet, Funeral Ikos and Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete whilst the composer himself conducts The Lamb.

The works on this disc are the fruits of the change in John Tavener's style which came about when he converted to the Orthodox Church. He stopped writing purely concert works and concentrated instead on texts from the Orthodox Christian tradition. This period also coincided with an extended relationship with the Tallis Scholars. Both the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete and Funeral Ikos received their first performances by The Tallis Scholars and Peter Philips. Ikon of Light was written specifically for The Tallis Scholars. In all four works you can sense Tavener exploring the possibilities of an ensemble of singers who were used to performing mainly early music, but able to approach the most challenging work and still give it a purity, sense of line and clarity.

The four works on this disc typify the way Tavener's writing almost split into two. The shorter works explored a single idea, often using highly memorable material assembled in a profoundly meditative and evocative way. It is these shorter works which have ensured Tavener's popularity. These are contrasted with the larger scale piece where Tavener is effectively inventing his own liturgy, using old texts in distinctive combinations to explore his own mystical concerns. And here, though the same voice is apparent, the material becomes more complex and with Tavener apparently far less concerned with approachability or, let us face it, comprehensibility. Tavener's larger works require you to enter his own world, to follow his own liturgical concerns.

Ikon of Light is a forty minute piece, written in seven movements, where the singers are joined by Mark Butler (violin), Csaba Erdelyi (viola) and Philip de Groote (cello) from the Chilingirian Quartet.. As with much of Tavener's larger scale writing symmetry is important. Six short movements surround a long central piece (Phos I, Shoxa, Trasagion I, Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit, Trisagion II, Phos II, Epiphania). The centre movement, the mystic prayer, lasts over 20 minutes and sets the mystic prayer to the Holy Spirit by St Symeon the New Theologian (949 - 1022) in something of the manner of a liturgical work with a mixture of choral and solo. The whole work is quite hard edged and hieratic, superbly rendered by the Tallis Scholars with the sometimes spectacular choral lines given a lovely purity and edge. Here and elsewhere you cannot help but admire the superb clarity and accuracy in the placing of the notes. The recording has a very large dynamic range, starting from imperceptibly quiet, the middle movement develops quite a kick!

Funeral Ikos is shorter, lasting just under 10 minutes and it is a beautiful and austere setting of words from the service for the burial of priests. Whilst much of the work has an hieratic chant-like quality, the musical material here is also profoundly beautiful and the work qualifies as one of the shorter works in my discussions above. The performance from The Tallis Scholars has a profoundly beautiful and controlled quality.

The Lamb is of course a little gem, but tricky to perform notwithstanding. The Tallis Scholars place the lines, with the mirror writing, to perfection and with the composer conducting the different tempi mesh perfectly in a way that does not always happen.

The final work on the disc is the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete a setting of the first part of a very much longer text. Each verse is sung by a bass soloist (Jeremy White) answered by the choir, each a semi-tone down from the previous so that the work itself becomes a sort of prostration. A fascinating, magical and rather tricky work!

The Tallis Scholars of the period included quite a few names who have gone on to become well-known in their own right including Deborah Roberts, Michael Chance, David Cordier, Robert Harre-Jones, Charles Daniels, Rufus Muller, Mark Padmore and Jeremy White.

This is a lovely disc and well worth investigation for anyone interested in Tavener's work, or in fine singing for that matter. The performances all have a superbly concentrated quality, combining intensity and purity. Essential listening.

John Tavener (1944 - 2013)  - Ikon of Light (1981) [42.14]
John Tavener (1944 - 2013)  - Funeral Ikos (1981) [9.41]
John Tavener (1944 - 2013)  - The Lamb (1983) [3.42]
John Tavener (1944 - 2013)  - Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete (1983) [21.55]
The Tallis Scholars
Members of the Chilingirian String Quartet
Recorded 1984/1982
GIMELL GIMSE404 1CD [77.32]
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