Classical Review: Tavener has Bach sailing to Byzantium

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JOHN TAVENER has found a vein of simplicity that each new work seems to exploit yet again - and just as you think "I've heard this before", the sheer beauty he finds in his material suspends criticism: a single diamond can refract light in many different ways. Tavener's Middle-Eastern mysticism can risk alienating rationalist Western listeners who don't share the premises of his Orthodox faith, but the music is so patently sincere that even the sceptical listener capitulates.

Two Tavener first performances this week put the sceptics to the test. The first was a world premiere: on Monday, in the course of a recital during the City of London Festival (among works by Mompou, Soler, Janacek, Mozart, Albeniz, Piazzolla and Nazareth), Elena Riu played his Hypakoe for solo piano. Tavener describes the work as "a meditation on both the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is a totally spiritual concept - to atone the individual's (performer's or listener's) will to the divine will".

The trouble with absolutist creeds of any sort is that they try to define you in whether you like it or not, and music can't do it any more than religions or political systems can: at least this listener didn't feel his will being atoned to anyone or anything else's. But I did hear a very limpidly lovely, rather formal 20 minute-long reflection. It begins with a dramatic opening gesture at the extremes of the keyboard, and then falls into clearly distinguishable sections, each taking a different approach to the keyboard: alternating patterns between the hands, two-part invention, chordal textures, trills over melodic figures in the left hand - the whole haunted by a gentle chorale figure that suggests Bach looking to Byzantium.

Pianists these days generally come on stage, attempt a wan smile and then bash through their programme. Riu instead gave an engaging introduction to each of her composers (bar Tavener) - not always completely accurate, but then she wasn't playing for musicologists. The audience rewarded her with intense, eager silence. More pianists should follow her example - as she showed, it won't do the music any harm.

The other Tavener novelty, on Wednesday at the Wigmore Hall, was the London premiere of The World, an exquisite, 10-minute setting of Kathleen Raine for soprano and string quartet. Again, the piece is sectional, the soprano floating Raine's words in a cantilena that rises to a note held at Himalayan heights over cruel stretches, until recurrent trill-topped passages for the quartet alone allow her to catch her breath.

Patricia Rozario demonstrated astonishing breath control, perfectly pitched, and singing (as Tavener requests) "at the peak of intensity", the whole delivered with a purity of tone that was truly astonishing. The Vanbrugh Quartet accompanied with similar concentration - playing more securely, indeed, than in the Beethoven "Harp" Quartet which opened the concert. That was marred by occasional problems of intonation, not normally something that affects the Vanbrughs, one of Britain's best string quartets: put it down to the Wigmore Hall's stifling heat that day. A lusty Elgar Piano Quintet, with Hugh Tinney an attentive partner, went a good way to restoring honour.