live BT Scottish Ensemble Hellenic Centre, London
Friday 28 June 1996
But whatever the truth of the matter, like all other composers they go on writing new works while their old ones find a place in the annals of recent musical history. John Tavener, from his early successes such as The Whale to his Slavic-toned Akhmatova Requiem of 1980 to his latest score, Tears of the Angels, premiered on Wednesday, has left his mark on several more strata than most. In addition, 20th-century British music is not his only sphere of influence. Reflecting the composer's enduring love of Greece, the new piece was first heard at London's Hellenic Centre on Wednesday. Yet another recent work and one of his darkest and tersest, Feast of Feasts, was commissioned for Lebanon's Al Bhustan Festival, and received its UK premiere on 4 June at the QEH, sung by Russia's legendary State Academic Choir.
Tears of the Angels, as it happens, is also dedicated "to the suffering people of Bosnia". This is not the first piece of the present decade to carry such a motto; but it is probably among the sincerest. To write "I grieve" across an artistic canvas and assume it to be a sufficient condition of feeling is nothing new. From Tavener, however, one rightfully expects a great deal more than the mere emblems of compassion.
And the new piece, intimate in rhetoric and emotion, does not disappoint. Tavener asks it to be played at the extreme breaking point of tenderness - beyond our compassion and beyond our comprehension. True, we might think those words refer to our numbed reaction to the brutality of Bosnia's inhabitants. But the hushed aura of the BT Ensemble's muted strings, Clio Gould's birdlike trills soaring into the violin's stratosphere, at once made it clear that, in Tears of the Angels, the composer relates God and suffering as a theological issue. Fortunately, as in Bach or Messiaen, theology can be sidestepped. And in its simple means - raw, chant-like material set in a plain, symmetrical form - Tavener has created a moving elegy. It transcends its place and, yes, its time, but only in the sense that art always does: by changing the particular into the universal.
There was something no less elegant about Vladimir Godar's Barcarolle, and no less simple yet elegant in its solution to the problems of ultra- slow music that also fits into an articulate pattern. Julian Lloyd Webber commissioned it after hearing Godar's oratorio Orbis sensualium pictus at the 1992 Prague Spring Festival. His reading on Wednesday was another world premiere at the Hellenic Centre, and it drew strength from all the virtues of his playing: sensuous legato and charmed phrasing in the cello's highest register. There were, in essence, only two chords, changing unpredictably like a catch in the voice. Part, in his Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, uses only one, but for a minimalist classic, one is enough. The BT Scottish Ensemble gave an atmospheric account, complete with the tolling of a rather flawed bell.
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