Classical review: Icelandic Chamber Choir / Agnarsson perform John Tavener

Southwark Cathedral, London

Seldom had the cathedral been so full, and not often for so poignant a reason. Last Monday John Tavener had eloquently stated his artistic credo on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’, and on Tuesday he had died. Friday night’s concert had been scheduled months back, but instead of a cheerful celebration of his latest choral work – a setting of three Shakespeare sonnets - it turned into his memorial service with family, friends, and fans, and with the opening line of the last poem sounding a note of awful appropriateness: ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead.’

The performers were Tavener’s favourite singers, the excellent South Iceland Chamber Choir, who began with some arrangements of Icelandic traditional songs. One could see exactly what drew the composer to them with their sweetly modal harmonies and clear kinship to medieval English carols. After a somewhat overblown premiere by the British composer Jack White it was time for Tavener’s own music, including ‘The Lamb’ and ‘Song for Athene’, the latter being his moving tribute to a friend killed in a cycling accident (which now offered another piece of grim topicality).

Tavener had written his a cappella ‘Three Shakespeare sonnets’ in gratitude to his wife after she had nursed him through a dangerous illness in 2007. In it he had chosen to create an opposition between soprano soloists singing very high angular lines and the rest of the choir laying down a soft carpet of continuous sound. This form didn’t make the most natural setting for the poem everybody loves – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – but it did suit the bitter ironies of the mortuary sonnet, and the work as a whole was finely shaped: I expect choirs all over the world will now queue up to perform it. The encore was Tavener’s gentle setting of the Lord’s Prayer, during which one sensed the composer’s immanent presence. By the end the singers were choked with emotion, and half the audience were in floods of tears. Which was entirely as it should be.