Holst Singers / Choir Of Temple Church, Temple Church, London

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The Independent Culture

Maybe the music of Sir John Tavener is beyond criticism. For many in the audience that flocked to Temple Church, I imagine that his music renders any assessment on the basis of sheer originality, for instance, or of musical development, entirely irrelevant.

Given this, it is arguably fruitless to point out that Elizabeth Full of Grace, the anthem commissioned by Prince Charles in memory of the late Queen Mother, overlays Tavener's usual drones and affectingly echoing repetitions, plus one seriously scrunchy moment involving full organ, with chromatic sidesteps and other gestures of an anachronistically Elgarian character. Yet, simplistic rather than simple, this anthem's various elements didn't add up to anything more in this context than a late audition for the role of the new Master of the Queen's Music. Move over, Michael Berkeley; Sir John will surely have them swooning in the aisles. Except that he is probably regarded as a bit too freaky for such exposure.

It is certainly true that Tavener has done much to show the strengths of building a style on age-old musical materials and techniques, whether borrowed from Catholic, Orthodox or, as more recently, a wider variety of Eastern sources. And this was often demonstrated in the present 60th-birthday concert (the first of a series), in which the Holst Singers and Choir of Temple Church under Stephen Layton, with Patricia Rozario (the composer's ubiquitous soprano), sang, with passion as well as precision, an uninterrupted sequence of works amid the candlelit splendours of this ancient church.

This began with three extracts from the seven-hour epic, The Veil of the Temple, premiered by these forces last June. Their simple pieties proved moving even for those of us who couldn't relive the experience of their massive and doubtless mind-changing original context. Later, the cellist Natalie Clein, with the strings of the London Sinfonietta, offered, with doe-eyed intensity, two not entirely successfully chosen portions of the evergreen The Protecting Veil; earlier, she had contributed Threnos, a solo moment of inspired theatricality from the church's east end.

What a pity, however, that Shunya, the previously unannounced world premiere of which concluded this concert, suffers from that enervatingly endless recycling of a handful of rather undistinguished elements to which Tavener seems prone. Suffused by incense, and ending with the closing of the magnificent west door on some of the singers, this evocation of supreme Buddhist extinction fails to achieve ecstasy by unwisely relying on incessant repetition, not only of the title word but also of a banal Puccinian melody of vaguely oriental cast. Madama Butterfly goes to Communion, perhaps. Again, and again, and again.

Further concerts: 29 April, 13 May, 1 & 8 July (0845 1207543; www.theveilofthetemple.com)

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