Arts: Esoteric allusionsin exotic hands

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The Independent Culture
After a 20-year break, the composer John Tavener has returned to writing for the piano, with results to be unveiled tonight. Given that he started life as a pianist, and that he routinely uses the piano to compose on, why the long gap? "It's an instrument I don't particularly like listening to on its own," he replies. "And I find it very difficult to write for, perhaps because I know it too well."

Then he elaborates. "On any instrument you play, you tend to write for yourself. I, for example, have a very wide hand-span - I can easily play consecutive 10ths - and this shows through in what I write. One doesn't have the same creative freedom as one does when writing for an instrument one doesn't play. And even then you have to fight the sort of tendency that you notice with Stravinsky: no matter what instrumentation he uses, you always sense that his work was originally conceived at the piano." Hence Tavener's strivings with the cello and the soprano voice.

I haven't heard the eccentrically-titled Hypakoe, but I have seen the manuscript, and very daunting it looks. This is less for technical reasons - though there are four solid pages of consecutive trills - than for philosophical ones. On the opening page, in Tavener's elegant scrawl, is an introductory paragraph explaining that the Greek title refers to "the Hyapoe of Easter", and that the 20-minute piece is a meditation on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. "The music is of an esoteric nature, rather than an exoteric nature." No, don't look it up: "exoteric" is merely an esoteric way of saying "for the uninitiated".

The score is studded with liturgical allusions. "Let all mortal flesh keep silent..." "The Lord awoke as one that sleepeth..." What hope do the uninitiated have of understanding such stuff? "It doesn't matter to me whether the audience understand those allusions or not. They were in my mind as I wrote the music, but those who hear it can interpret it as they wish. It's not a sophisticated piece. It's got a peasant-like quality - a hair-shirtedness - and a lot of sounds from Russian medieval chant." Another Eastern sound comes when the performer is asked to produce the effect of the kanun, the Phoenician zither.

So when Elena Riu takes the stage at the Ironmongers' Hall in London tonight, she'll face an interesting challenge. She is at least aware of the ironies in the situation: a mystical work, commissioned by a City financier (Sir Nicholas Goodison), and premiered for a select audience of well-heeled folk. She'd play it again at 10pm for a second audience if they'd let her; she's spreading the gospel with further performances in Dartington (25 July) and Edinburgh (7 August). She'd ideally have launched it at a "democratic" venue like St Martin-in-the-Fields, "but absolutely not at the Festival Hall, which would be completely wrong for this work".

On meeting this petite Venezuelan pianist you realise that Tavener has found his ideal interpreter, for she brings her own combination of radicalism and unworldliness. The daughter of the Catalan communist philosopher Federico Riu, Elena was originally destined for a literary career and only gravitated to the piano in her twenties. As a result, her approach to music remains refreshingly unorthodox.

"It's not just notes: I always try to discover where composers are feeding from," she says. With the Tavener piece, it helped that she shares the composer's interest in Orthodox mysticism, but she also soaked herself in visual imagery, including Tarkovsky's film Andrei Rublev, which chronicles the life of a 15th-century Russian icon-painter through the turbulence of civil war.

On a record to be released by the Linn label in September, she has teamed Hypakoe with Janacek's In The Mist, plus an intriguing collection of miniatures by three composers who, in her view, are on a similar wavelength: Peter Sculthorpe, Federico Mompou, and the inevitable Arvo Part. As a fellow- Catalan, and after long discussions with Mompou's widow, she has a hot- line to the mysteries of that composer's Charmes. Mompou himself described his terse pieces, which which appear to evaporate in the air, as "spells to alleviate suffering and call up joy"; they're perfectly attuned to the Tavener project. And to get into the mood to play art-inspired works by the Australian Peter Sculthorpe, Riu surrounded herself with Aboriginal bark-paintings and prints by Hiroshige.

But if she has a crusade, it's for the music of her origins: last year she ran the Spanish Plus series at the South Bank, including a recital of sonatas by Antonio Soler which she has now committed to disc. Soler has been all but eclipsed by his teacher Domenico Scarlatti. Riu is determined to redress the balance. She loves his fertile unpredictability, which she brings out exhilaratingly in performance; one can well understand the furore his musical theories provoked in their day.

She's not part of the smart recital circuit, and doesn't aspire to be, but she's still cross about the way a few agents have the scene sewn up. In her view, there's still a gross imbalance between the sexes, both in South Bank programmes and at the Proms. "In music, the same sort of mechanism is at work as the one we saw in the choice of Poet Laureate, who should have been Carol Ann Duffy," she says. She thinks far more money and thought should be spent on devising concerts for children; she regularly plays for handicapped audiences in Camp Hill communities. When I first encountered Riu, she was giving a masterclass on Granados and Goya at Dartington summer school, and she'll be back there this month. Let's hope she creates some clones, for we can do with more of her sort.

The Tavener premiere is at Ironmongers' Hall, City of London Festival, tonight at 8pm. Box office: 0171-638 8891