CLASSICAL MUSIC / The sounds of paradise packaged: Nicholas Williams hears the 'Cathedral Classics' tour open with a Tavener premiere

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The Independent Culture
THE LONDON Festival Orchestra's concert at St Paul's on Thursday resembled a typical set-piece dialogue where historical persons - Diogenes and Nietzsche, for example - are engaged in imaginary table talk. Granted, the figures were poets, not philosophers: Schiller, and the fourth-century St Ephrem the Syrian; but the effect was much the same. Schiller was there by way of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; St Ephrem got in through his connections with John Tavener, whose Hymn of Paradise sets Ephrem's 'Hymn of Paradise' for bass solo, boy sopranos, and six ethereal violins.

How far this represented the contribution of the orchestra was open to question. Either way, the piece - given its world premiere here, at the start of the orchestra's annual 'Cathedral Classics' tour - was pure Tavener: a questioning refrain sung unaccompanied by Brian Bannatyne-Scott, framing five brief celestial visions offered by choir and instruments in a halo of parallel triads and plainchant. No doubt the composer intended this as something static, Byzantine; one of his famous 'icons in sound'. Yet the effect, not least in a sacred precinct of the choral tradition, was no less of a late flowering of English 'blessedness', of alleluias from the English Hymnal mixed in with radiant visions from the last movement of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony. There, of course, the hard-won glimpse of eternity is preceded by 20 minutes of strenuous symphonic argument. Tavener does away with all that, apparently presenting the thing itself, washed, filleted and packaged without the mess. Perhaps the musical gestures sounded a touch worn, a touch too recycled and flavourless to be the genuine article. Still, Paradise is only a place in the mind, so how reassuring to know that it's never been easier to come by.

Easier, surely, than it was for Beethoven, whose Choral Symphony took 12 years to complete. Schiller and St Ephrem might regard each other with raised eyebrows, but Tavener and Beethoven have even less in common, other than the fact that their music is suitable for the vast interior of cathedral buildings. And Beethoven's Ninth does work in such an acoustic, despite the fact that the St Paul's reverberation of some three seconds made every tutti sound like the orchestra playing with the sostenuto pedal wedged permanently down.

The secret lies in correct tempi, and these were well chosen by conductor Ross Pople. His generously relaxed speeds in the outer movements could not prevent the horns dragging behind the beat - as they had done in Sibelius's Finlandia, first item on the programme. But where the textures thinned out, as in the scherzo, the impression was of effortless momentum. In the slow movement the effect was reversed; the enfolding space, like a sonorous prism, dissected and clarified the strands of Beethoven's orchestration, not least his luminous scoring for woodwind. And in the finale soprano Lynda Russell and the St Paul's Chorus made this mighty variation set the true clinching of the argument, rising above the composer's arduous vocal writing and the inevitable murk.