Classical review: John Tavener, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester International Festival

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Very occasionally a performance is so special that the audience feels reluctant to shatter the moment which hangs in the air between them and the musicians with something as profane as applause. So it was at the concert of music by Sir John Tavener at the Manchester International Festival which contained no fewer than three world premieres by the great man as he approaches his 70th birthday.

The first was the Love Duet from The Play of Krishna in which two Hindu deities, Krishna and Rhadha, repeatedly sing each other’s names over and over against a background of shimmering and sweeping strings. Tenor John Mark Ainsley was magisterial and Elin Manahan Thomas magical in a soaring ornamented soprano line, triplets cascading rhapsodically over a drone of Russian Orthodox-style basses.

But it was Tavener’s score Mahámátar, written for Werner Herzog’s short film Pilgrimage which stunned. The film, was shown behind the BBC Philharmonic as conductor Tecwyn Evans coaxed from them a performance which moved between the serene and ecstatic. Herzog focuses almost entirely on the faces of Mexican Catholics progressing on their knees and Russian pilgrims crawling on their bellies across the ice to the tomb of St Sergei. Music and movie are an extended meditation on the words of the mystic Thomas à Kempis: ‘It is only the pilgrims who in the travails of their earthly voyage do not lose their way … they are guided by the same prayers, and suffering, and fervour, and woe.’

The extraordinarily deep female voice of Pakistani sufi singer, Abida Parveen, in her first performance in the UK for a decade, explored the borderline between pain and ecstasy as the film penetrated the habits of peasant superstition to plumb the inner passion and wonderment with which humans struggle to decipher depths where there are no words. The cello of Steven Isserlis provided an eloquent yearning counterpoint. At the close it was as if the audience had been witnesses to worship. Something transcendent hung in the silence that followed.

The second premiere was If Ye Love Me which Tavener had written for the festival’s Sacred Sounds Choir – a group of women drawn from the city’s Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. Their costumes of greens, golds, reds and turquoise were visual symbols of the richness of the traditions on which the composer drew. Tavener’s densely-harmonic round movingly counterpointed the words of more than one religion in a wall of symbolically unified sound.

The third premier was piece for bass-baritone, solo cello, two trombones, percussion and strings based on one of Tolstoy’s last short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Punctuated by the repeated summons of stentorian trombones, against urgent strings, the bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu projected the intense physical suffering of the dying man who glimpses light at the end of his ordeal –  conveyed at the last by the intense screech of the upper register of Isserlis’s otherwise mournfully lyrical cello.

At the end a frail Tavener climbed to the stage to bow with grace at the standing ovation which greeted this great festival triumph.