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.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

CD Reviews - August 2014

Viola player Barbara Buntrock and pianist Daniel Heide have released an intriguing set of three works, all composed in 1919.  First, the Sonata by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), for which the composer won joint first prize in the Sprague Coolidge competition, sharing the position with Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), whose Suite for Viola and Piano is also here.  They are separated on the disc by the Sonata, Op. 11 No. 4 by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).  The Clarke Sonata is a beautiful piece, unusual in that its emotional heart is a slow third movement.  There are elements of Vaughan Williams and Debussy here, but Clarke definitely has a voice of her own.  Sadly she left her studies at the Royal College of Music due to an inappropriate proposal from a professor and being thrown out by her father, and struggled to get her music taken seriously, even having to use a male pseudonym at times.  When she won the competition, rumours spread that her piece was actually by Bloch, as it couldn’t possibly have been composed by a woman.  She more or less stopped composing in the fifties after her marriage, but left a fine body of chamber, vocal and choral works which is gradually gaining the recognition it deserves (Check out the Rebecca Clarke Society for more).  The Hindemith Sonata by comparison is a darker work - there are still the late Romantic touches here, as well as hints of Debussy, but Hindemith’s drier, complex harmonic language is emerging too. The final work on this disc is the Suite by Bloch.  Unlike many of his works which draw on Jewish traditional music, Bloch’s main influence here is Java and the Far East.  Over these three works, all composed in the same year, there is a huge range of styles and soundworlds, which Buntrock and Heide capture well.  Buntrock produces beautiful warmth in the Clarke, a greater edge to her sound in the Hindemith, and brings out the ethereal exoticism in the Bloch, with Heide providing strong accompaniment throughout. Highly recommended.

Next, live performances from the Ensemble Epomeo, and members of the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods.  First, the Ensemble Epomeo (with which Kenneth Woods plays the cello) and friends perform Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) by Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) in its original string sextet version.  Schönberg later orchestrated the work, and it became one of his most performed works.  Unlike his later music, it is tonal, although highly chromatic, with a late Romantic stamp, and a strong Wagnerian flavour.  The orchestral version is extremely lush, but the sextet version, whilst obviously pared down in texture, actually has a greater intensity.  The poem by Dehmel which inspired the work is about a woman who walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man.  Her lover ultimately forgives her and the intensity of their love and the beauty of the moonlight brings them together.  In this live recording, there are some occasional background noises, and in fact noises from the players themselves at time, with some rather heavy breathing in places.  However, they capture the build of intensity in the music, and one can sense that this must have been a captivating performance to experience live.  Despite the relative containment of the sextet version, the climaxes could take more passion, but otherwise this is an exciting performance.  The disc continues with another chamber version of a work better known as an orchestral piece.  Brahms (1833-1897) originally scored his Serenade Op. 11 for wind and string octet, then expanded it to a nonet, before fully orchestrating it in the version known today.  Brahms destroyed the original chamber version, but Alan Boustead reconstructed it, and here it is performed by members of the Orchestra of the Swan.  Another enjoyable live performance, combining sensitivity and warmth in the Adagio, spirit and fun in the second Scherzo, with a rousing gypsy-infused Finale.  The wind players in particular stand out for me in this lively recording.

Montreal based group VivaVoce, conducted by Peter Schubert have recorded motets based around Scenes from the Gospels, by composers including Josquin, Palestrina and Gombert.  As an ensemble, they produce a very clear, pure and even sound, which is perhaps less resonant than the fuller sounds of English ensembles we are more used to, such as The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars.  They aim for a beauty of overall sound, I think, rather than inflecting the music with significant expression.  This works better for me in the more rhythmically interesting pieces, such as Domine, si tu es by Nicolas Gombert (1495-c.1560), or In illo tempore stabant by Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1592), but the longer, soaring lines of Palestrina’s (1525-1594) In diebus illis left me wanting more depth to the sound.  However, there is great variety in their programme, and a composer new to me was Michele Pesenti, or Michael of Verona (c.1470-c.1524), whose Tulerunt Dominum meum contains some beautiful word painting, taking the sopranos souring upwards on the word ‘spes’ (‘hope’), before bringing us back down to earth at the end.  To win a copy of this CD, email me at - draw at end of August (UK only).

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2014)