A sense of tidying up loose ends infused the belated premiere of Sir John Tavener's Tribute to Cavafy. Commissioned by Symphony Hall, Birmingham, it is a seven-movement setting of the words of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Completed in 1999, it belongs to Tavener's earlier, stark "Greek Orthodox" phase.
Vanessa Redgrave brought a bewitching presence to the role of narrator, as in the central movement, "Voices", which required her to read out two long lists of names: first, Cavafy's literary descendants and then Christ's genealogy.
In between, the choir and semi-chorus delivered radiant verse settings, gradually increasing in intensity to ecstatic effect. Sarah Connolly wreathed a beautiful solo line of euphoric, swiftly repeated notes. "Voices" concluded magically with a gradual stripping away of the choral lines to leave the basses intoning "God", an inspired gesture.
On either side of this movement, spoken settings of "The God Abandons Anthony" and "Ithaka" relied mainly on the emotional resources of the narrator for resonance rather than any memorable musical effects.
Flanking them were two artless movements. For "In the Month of Athyr" Redgrave played the part of Cavafy trying to decipher words on a tomb while the chorus chanted the words. In "Prayer", for soloist and chorus, a mother prays for the return of her sailor son, not knowing that he has drowned.
The outer layers of the piece were identical. A folk-like choral setting of "Days of 1903" in Greek framed the work in a wistfulness entirely appropriate to words describing a lost love.
In truth, none of the movements approached the same level of invention as "Voices", the heart of the work. Disappointingly, Tavener rarely exploited the fabled contrapuntal talents of the Tallis Scholars, who seemed far more in their element in the premiere of a new scholarly edition of 16th-century Flemish composer Nicholas Gombert's Missa Tempore paschali.
Intricately interwoven parts frequently produced teeming textures, especially in the second half of the Credo, whose split-second switches of harmony created tremendous tension and emotional ambiguity.Reuse content