MUSIC / In the name of the Father

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THE BBC called its weekend festival of the music of John Tavener Ikons, but it could easily have dropped the 's'. For Tavener is, these days, an icon in his own right. What is more, since the extraordinary commercial success of his not-quite- concerto for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, he has become what few living composers manage to be: a name that sells concerts.

The teeming audience that filled a candlelit Westminster Cathedral on Monday for two of his most grandly atmospheric scores, In Alium and Ultimos Ritos, was astonishing. It was proof of Tavener's inclusive blend of the musically accessible and the spiritually focused. Every work creates a sort of liturgy, a ritual aesthetic that involves the listener and collectively approaches questions big enough to be outside the scope of answers. And it clearly meets a need. Some years ago I wrote of Tavener as 'curiously isolated' by the immersion of his work in contemplative Christianity. But I misread the omens. Arvo Part, Gorecki, MacMillan . . . Christian contemplation has acquired the centre ground in music. And it seems that Messiaen, the seed-sower of modern Christian music, ploughed a deeper furrow than we thought.

But, as the BBC festival made clear, Tavener is not a new phenomenon. In fact, he has been 'discovered' at regular intervals over the past quarter-century. In the late Sixties he made a phenomenal debut (aged 24-25) with The Whale, In Alium and the Celtic Requiem; then periodically resurfaced with landmark projects such as the opera Therese (Covent Garden, 1979) and the Akhmatova: Requiem (Proms, 1980) before The Protecting Veil (Proms, 1989) descended. In its weekend overview, the BBC for understandable reasons left out the operas. Less understandably it left out what seems to me the key choral work of the Eighties, Ikon of Light. But otherwise it charted an illuminating path through that quarter-century of work, and showed that although the received idea of Tavener - as a flamboyant creature of the Sixties who thereafter found God, sobriety and Orthodox chant - is broadly true, it's not the whole truth.

Certainly, the basis of his writing changed around 1977, when he converted to Russian Orthodoxy. From then on he began to consider himself a religious artist crafting musical icons: windows, in sound, on God. And yes, the music of the Eighties and Nineties is distinctive in that it reflects not only the function of icons but their visual language: solemnly serene, austere, though gorgeously encased in gold. But in a broader context you hear that this 'icon' style is only the refinement of processes that are constant throughout his output. Critically, the music depends (and always has depended) on a synthesis of repetition and accumulation, rejecting the Western requirement for linear development. Instead it adopts an Eastern circularity, repeating long but clearly defined sections with perhaps some underlying variation, but essentially describing musically the maxim 'In my end is my beginning'. Tavener persistently returns to that idea. He likes musical palindromes, in which a phrase or figure reads the same backwards as forwards - Saturday's Barbican concert had an explicit example in the rarely heard score for piano and orchestra, Palintropos.

The risk with non-developmental music that speaks on a scale as massive and extensive as Tavener's is that, even if the score doesn't lose its way, the audience loses interest. I lost interest in Celtic Requiem, which was in the Saturday concert and turned out to be a shotgun marriage of materials that don't gel: a deeply Sixties music-theatre of childrens' games and adult rites of passage, not terribly effectively using the collage techniques of the time. But a mature work like The Protecting Veil, which Stephen Isserlis played with the BBC SO at the Barbican on Sunday, is a far more successful solution to the problem. I've always thought 'protecting veil' sounded like

a euphemism for a condom, and the power of this piece is prophylactic, derived from the cumulative containment of energy as the cello strains in its highest register for three repeating notes and the machinery of the score as a whole turns endlessly in on itself.

The Protecting Veil relies solely on string texture - there is no wind or percussion in the orchestra - and the strings of the BBC SO are not its chief strength. But for once, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, they aspired to the sheeress of silk. Although it seems a shame to say so, it was this (by now) familiar piece, rather than the unknown works, that was the weekend's highlight.

Overall, the lesson of the weekend was that Tavener's creative language has been more consistent than I thought and his quality control more random. The difference between the good works and the poor ones has been largely a matter of how imaginatively - and discerningly - a small repertoire of processes has been applied to a finite universe of ideas. While early pieces such as Ultimos Ritos (a choral and orchestral juggernaut of wildly mixed content) are capable of embracing both the banal and the sublime, the later ones are more specific. Some are pretty, some are potboilers; a few - including The Protecting Veil - are brilliantly effective. Maybe, even, masterpieces. The pity is that you can't look to the future and expect anything to develop from them: there is, remember, no development in Tavener. To him and the serene traditions of the East, that may not matter. But to you, me, and the catch- it-as-it-passes West, it might.

A good production of Richard Strauss's Elektra is like a sharp kick in the stomach. When the current Gotz Friedrich production opened at Covent Garden four years ago, it was nothing less: a blistering experience, driven mercilessly by Sir Georg Solti and sung at

fever pitch by a choice cast. Now, back for its first revival (with the same cast), it is still good. But the kick isn't so brutally abdominal under new conductor Christian Thielemann. And although the set remains effective (another of Friedrich's time tunnels: a louvred sewer punctured by a morally symbolic spike), the performances don't live in it so strongly. Marjana Lipovsek's Klytemnestra is, as before, a model of exotic rocky horror and is magnificently sung. But Eva Marton doesn't quite present herself as the leading exponent of Elektra one knows her to be. She has stamina, but her focus wavers.

Which was also the problem in the RPO's performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Festival Hall on Tuesday. It featured an emergent and much-talked- about Italian conductor, Paolo Olmi (soon to surface at Covent Garden), some striking young Italian soloists and an intermittent sense of excitement. But it was also undisciplined, perversely slow and without the clarity required to make a direct impact. It was sometimes an extremely near thing - but it just didn't deliver.

'Elektra', Covent Garden, WC2, 071-240 1066, continues Monday and Friday.

(Photograph omitted)