Classical Music / Double Play: Divine banality

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Tavener: Ikon of Light; Two Hymns to the Mother of God; Today the Virgin; The Tiger; The Lamb; Eonia - The Sixteen, members of the Duke Quartet / Harry Christophers (Collins Classics 14052)

DEPENDING upon when you ask me, I'm a born-again Tavenite or confirmed agnostic. The Protecting Veil almost did for me. Almost. But I can never be sure why. The force of Tavener's music has almost nothing whatever to do with the notes. It's music of the spirit, the other-self; it's about devotion, contemplation, meditation, it's about expressing the inexpressible. And its conviction is absolute. But are we really talking music, or religious experience?

Roughly one-third of this exquisitely performed disc of music for voices falls effortlessly into the former category. Two Hymns to the Mother of God show us the light succinctly, the first in a blaze of ecstatic crushed harmonies. Then there is John Tavener courting William Blake: two marvellous settings, the simple, timeless melody of The Lamb unforgettably recalled amidst the dense counterpointing of The Tiger. But with Ikon of Light we enter a world of protracted ritual, repetition, and silence.

This is austere, hair-shirt Tavener, and it can instil both awe and impatience. The beginning and end are stunning: some of the choral extremes from basso profundo to shrill treble will leave you open- mouthed. But it's those eternal in-betweens. The speed of light is for once not greater than the speed of sound. So give me Eonia, the smallest and most fragrant of Tavener ikons. It's fragile, it's perfectly formed. And short.

EDWARD SECKERSON

WHERE does eloquent simplicity end, and artlessness, naivety, or just plain banality begin? John Tavener seems to have a much less clear idea where the divide is than his fellow 'faith minimalist' Arvo Part. The final two pieces on this disc from The Sixteen, Today the Virgin and Eonia, didn't seem to add anything, technically or expressively, to the earlier devotional minatures.

But in the opening Hymn to the Mother of God - just three slow canonic phrases in evenly flowing triads - the formula works; there's something of the grandeur and intensity of the opening of The Protecting Veil, and as sheer choral sound it's wonderful - warm and lapidary at the same time.

Ikon of Light is another of Tavener's successes, partly because it's harmonically and texturally more adventurous, partly because the ritualistic framework is strong and original, and perhaps most of all because the vocal writing shows Tavener at his least formulaic and most lyrical: the solo lines, each taking off from a five-note scale phrase, stick in the mind and pull one back, as do the weird shifting choral harmonies near the start.

As Ikon of Light shows, Tavener can sometimes forget that he doesn't officially approve of 20th-century musical innovation. I wish he'd do it more often. The performances are magnificent; this 'simple' music is a lot less simple to sing well than you might think, but The Sixteen never falter and everything comes across with full conviction. Lovely, atmospheric recorded sound too.

STEPHEN JOHNSON

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Four Orchestral Pieces - Chicago Symphony

Orchestra / Pierre Boulez (DG 437 826-2)

BARTOK'S inimitable tunes can rarely have sounded so remote from their fields of origin. A performance of five-star refinement from Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has the Concerto sounding positively Debussian. They are Elysian fields, these.

Limpid woodwinds and strumming harp waft diaphanously into the first movement. The 'lugubrious death- song' of the third is possessed of a languorous beauty, the finale brings chic to the folk dancing. Even the rude 'interruption' that tears into the Intermezzo is in the best possible taste. Too much varnish, too many compromised rhythms - the inflection, the tinta of this reading just isn't Bartok.

There need be no such concern over the early effusions of the Four Orchestral Pieces, belonging to a sound-world before the time of Bluebeard's Castle. Exotic scents mingle with the stench of brutality and outrage - the music's late-Romantic surge enjoys free rein in a vivid recording.

ES

THERE is no one quite like Pierre Boulez for stirring up mixed feelings. The opening of the Concerto for Orchestra is gripping - detail sharp, clear and chilly, like slow sunrise over frost-bound plains.

Sounds in the other four movements also spring to life surprisingly: Bartok the modernist wasn't quite so easily forgotten in this late work as we might have thought. We can trust Boulez to remind us of that. Full marks are due to him for ignoring the tradition observed in most performances and not making a big drop in tempo for the first movement second theme - the music flows much more evenly as a result.

Unfortunately, the theme itself is oddly characterless: there is not much vocal breath in the wind phrases, and little sweet-and-sour Eastern European sauce. It's cultivated, but bland. Boulez's attempt at intense string espressivo at the slow movement's climax is startling but not, for me, convincing; and yet after this comes a truly desolate coda - the familiar experienced afresh. If only it could all have been like that.

The early, luxurious Four Orchestral Pieces respond more evenly to the Boulez touch - does he feel more at home in this (for its time) more radical music? Perhaps there could be a degree or two more savagery, but the colours aren't easily forgotten.

SJ

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