Wednesday, 6 August 2014

BBC Prom 25: The Tallis Scholars - Tavener

© BBC/Chris Christodoulos

BBC Proms, Prom 25
Monday 4 August 2014, 9.15pm

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Peter Phillips (conductor)

Sir John Tavener (1944-2013):

Ikon of Light (first performance at the Proms)

Requiem Fragments (BBC commission, world première)

It would have been Sir John Tavener's 70th birthday this year, and presumably the BBC's commission of Requiem Fragments was originally intended to mark that anniversary at this year's Proms.  In fact it was one of the last works he composed before his death in November last year, and was dedicated to The Tallis Scholars, who performed it on Monday, conducted by Peter Phillips, along with Ikon of Light, which they recorded 30 years ago.  Their landmark recording of the work was also re-released earlier this year (read my review here), and that release also included The Tallis Scholars singing Tavener's The Lamb (more of this later), conducted by Tavener himself.

The Tallis Scholars line-up has gone through considerable changes in recent times, with many newer voices joining the group.  I wonder whether all these new voices have had chance to 'bed down' just yet, as the ensemble in Ikon of Light was at times surprisingly less secure than the smooth, blended sound we are accustomed to hearing from them.  Despite the fact that tuning was impeccable, they also took a note from the strings between several sections of the work - unnecessary as the tuning was bang on, but perhaps another indication that the ensemble were not 100% confident in this opening work.  

Ikon of Light is a striking work, with many of the key elements that would become Tavener's hallmarks throughout his career.  The first of these is evident in the opening section, Fos I, where he contrasts short sections for string trio (performed here by members of the Heath Quartet) with sudden, loud chords from the choir, on the single word, Fos ('light').  In their original recording, The Tallis Scholars gave these bright, illuminating chords real shine and edge, but on Monday night, some felt a little tentative, particularly from the top soprano voices, which characterised the performance overall, unfortunately.  However, there was some impressive singing here too, particularly from the two low basses in the Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit, as the subterranean bass drones frequently ground the increasingly complex invention in this long central section.  Tavener also shows his fascination with palindrome in this work, both small and large scale, as seen in the overall symmetrical structure of the work.  When the Fos chords return towards the end of the work (Fos II), the voices seemed more secure and confident, although still without the power and bite of the original recording.

However, for their performance of Requiem Fragments, The Tallis Scholars, separated into two choirs, seemed suddenly much more secure and at home.  Tavener was inspired here by Josquin's complex 24-voice Qui habitat, with its intricate canon structure.  Requiem Fragments is not as complex, but there is still considerable use of canon, particularly in the settings of the Hindu words Manikarnika (a Hindu shrine and place of cremation) and Mahapralaya (the total reabsorption of everything into the one Divine Being, at the end of the Universe).  In contrast, the earlier fragments, setting short parts of the Requiem text, are much simpler, although there is use of strict canon here between the two choirs, so that although the harmonies are very simple, almost Romantic in their lushness, Tavener still creates dissonance and effective layering of sound.  This richness is also matched in the writing for the string quartet, and the Heath Quartet produced a remarkably full tone to avoid being swamped by the singers.  The sections for string quartet also use canon, and they are joined by two trombones at key points, particularly effective in the climactic settings of Atma ('Supreme reality and supreme self') and Sanctus.  After this, Manikarnika begins with a lone soprano voice (exquisitely sung by Carolyn Sampson, who by now had crept into the organ loft way above the singers on stage), gradually joined by the choir in canon.  Tavener’s ability to produce something sublime out of seemingly simple beginnings is what marks out certain of his works as masterpieces, and this is definitely one of those works.  When the opening Requiem aeternam setting returns, closure is hinted at, but the final unresolved chord left hanging in the air felt like a fitting tribute to the enigmatic composer no longer with us.

Following the original scheduled programme, as part of the nationwide LIGHTS OUT event, the lights were dimmed and prommers lit small electric candles, whilst actor Samuel West joined the stage to recite Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.  The Tallis Scholars, joined by Carolyn Sampson, then gave a heartfelt rendition of Tavener’s The Lamb, followed by Sam West reciting the attributed words of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on the eve of Britain’s entry into the First World War, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe…’  A moving and effective end to a reflective and atmospheric evening.

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