MUSIC / From out of this world: Stephen Johnson reviews John Tavener's The Last Sleep of the Virgin at the Cheltenham Festival

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How do you programme a string quartet by John Tavener? Framing it between other equally slow-unfolding, non-developmental contemporary pieces might be one answer. The Cheltenham Festival's solution was quite different. Tavener's The Last Sleep of the Virgin (officially String Quartet No 2) found itself sharing the Chilingirian Quartet's Pittville Pump Room concert on Wednesday morning with three 'classics' of the genre: Haydn's Op 64 No 6 and Op 71 No 2, and Bartok's Fourth Quartet.

The contrast was extreme: not simply because of the unusual features of both Tavener's work and its performance - the important extra part for handbells, the placing of the performers out of sight, high up under the Pittville dome - but much more because, after Haydn and Bartok, The Last Sleep of the Virgin thought and breathed like a creature from another world. After two works as dense in incident as anything in the standard Western repertoire, here was a piece, or rather an expanse of music, in which harmonic and rhythmic change were minimal, and dynamics and pulse were sustained at a low level throughout. The only kind of detail that might remotely be called an event was the occasional, seemingly arbitrary, introduction of a 'wrong note' or two into otherwise complete modal purity - any resemblance to the old device of musica ficta (possible modern translation: 'wrong notes with attitude') becoming increasingly superficial. Compared to this, Tavener's own The Protecting Veil is as opulent and emotionally demonstrative as a Strauss tone poem.

The impression, particularly for any listener perverse enough to follow with the score, might well be of a piece that defies one to make sense of it (like religious experience itself, one might argue). But, however mysterious, elusive the sense may be as one listens moment by moment, there is at the end that extraordinary sense of accumulated intensity familiar from many of Tavener's more recent devotional offerings. After this, it was an effort to readjust to Haydn's compact, lucidly purposeful musical thinking - though not, apparently, for the members of the quartet, whose playing was on the same high level of alertness and vitality as it had been pre-Tavener.

The evening's Pittville Pump Room concert was an all-contemporary (or near-contemporary) event - and, with the Performing Right Society providing important support, this was hardly surprising. Was it the programme or the pull of more widely enticing festival events (a complete Swan Lake and a Dubliners concert) that explained the dishearteningly small attendance? Whatever, the performers gave no sign of relaxing their efforts, and suggestions of less than complete confidence were rare. Violinist Yfrah Neaman and pianist Malcolm Troup have both had plenty of opportunity to get to know Malcolm Lipkin's idiom, and the Violin Sonata and Third Piano Sonata were given energetic, well- shaped performances - a pity it wasn't possible to balance all this early Lipkin with something writtem more recently than 1957.

Alexander Goehr's Piano Trio, Op 20, is also a relatively early work, with Goehr's teacher Messiaen very much in evidence in the first of its two movements. This was the section that came across most effectively; Julian Jacobson (piano), Elizabeth Perry (violin) and Melissa Phelps (cello) didn't quite achieve the intense concentration demanded by the spare, inward-looking finale - playing to a largely empty hall can't have helped. Fortunately, they were able to throw themselves completely into the Op 24 Piano Trio by Hugh Wood (who, like Goehr and Lipkin, celebrates his 60th birthday this year). The expression was direct, the musical argument as easy to follow as with Lipkin at his clearest. More people should have heard this.