Tavener at 60, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

In the Barbican's generously programmed 60th birthday celebration of Sir John Tavener, most of the featured works were written since 2002, and so follow the composer's recent path from orthodox Christianity to an appreciation of a truth in every spiritual tradition.

In the Barbican's generously programmed 60th birthday celebration of Sir John Tavener, most of the featured works were written since 2002, and so follow the composer's recent path from orthodox Christianity to an appreciation of a truth in every spiritual tradition.

The world premiere of this evening was called Pratrirupa, a Sanskrit word meaning "reflection", a reference to accompanying strings that mirrored the solo piano. Rather than developing any of its characteristically striking and artless themes, it evolved in a typically Tavener-esque fashion: oft-repeated individual sections growing in length and intensity at each repetition.

The principal material consisted of a dignified, ritual-like melody of delicate, natural beauty contrasted with manic, boogie-woogie style piano splutterings, initially at both extremes of the keyboard but which then shifted via chromatic chords in contrary motion to meet in the middle. Not the most felicitous of Tavener's inventions, it was repeated ad nauseam. Programme notes about such a mechanical utterance representing sexuality failed to render it compelling.

In compensation, the frequent piano solos achieved a genuine, Mozartian simplicity, and a serene idea wafting between major and minor floated into the memory. A huge crashing tutti chord resonating into silence made an effective conclusion to a fascinating but flawed work. Perhaps insufficient rehearsal time was to blame for the rather stiff and occasionally tentative playing from the English Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Ralf Gothoni.

The orchestra was transformed after the interval for a memorable performance of Tavener's Supernatural Songs, his 2002 settings of works by WB Yeats for mezzo-soprano, strings, powwow drum and Hindu temple bowl. In Stephen Layton's expert hands, the strings were gloriously full and expressive, assisted by Tavener's eloquent score, which encompasses vibrant swathes of melody, imposing threnodies, ecstatic tremolandi and coaxing pizzicati.

The songs, which received their London premiere, must rank as are one of the composer's finest achievements: the soaring violin theme arching over sonorous, primeval chord changes in his setting of "O Do Not Love Too Long" rejoiced in something of John Barry's melodic gift, while the concluding, ravishingly tender meditation on death, "Where There is Nothing, There Is God" was inspired, making the audience hold its breath as the music ebbed away. Sarah Connolly provided a ravishing tone, sure technique and total empathy with text and music.

Stephen Layton also shaped some beautifully phrased and miraculously balanced interpretations by Polyphony of a sprinkling of radiant Tavener choral works featured on a superb disc recently released on the Hyperion label.

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