RECORDS / Double Play: An eternity of listening: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on John Tavener's modern miracle

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Tavener: Mary of Egypt - Rozario, Varcoe, Britten-Pears Chamber Choir, Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble / Friend (Collins 70232 - two CDs)

WE'VE accepted the idea of inverse snobbery; so can there be such a thing as an inverse tour de force? If so, Mary of Egypt is it. The Protecting Veil may move very slowly, but move it does - a complete descent of the scale of F major. Mary of Egypt remains fixed to a pedal F virtually throughout its nearly two-hour span. Textures change but the drone continues.

For Tavener this is the central symbol - eternity, a reminder that God is everywhere and unchanging. For this listener the fact that it doesn't become absolutely intolerable is itself a source of wonder. And there's no denying the effect in the rare moments where the bass actually moves - the first F to G step in Mary and the priest Zossima's climactic 'Bless' duet is a major event. I can't help being reminded, though, of Shelley's remark that if he'd grown up alone in the desert he would probably have fallen in love with some poor tuft of grass. The problem is, surely, that the music is only one element in what Tavener calls his 'living icon'. You need to see the characters and their gestures to make sense of this rarefied ritual-drama, with its repetitions and protracted embellishments. Without it even Mary's delicious flute trills pall after a while - and the Swine people's fanfare-with-stomp turns out to be rather more perishable.

No complaints about the performances, though; Stephen Varcoe's Zossima and Patricia Rozario's Mary have flesh as well as haloes, and Chloe Goodchild colours her vowel sounds so beguilingly that you'd hardly guess it takes her four minutes to sing 'The ways to salvation are more than one'. And given that the recording was made at a staged performance, the sound-quality is pretty near miraculous. SJ

CAUTION. Those who've found solace at the shrine of The Protecting Veil should be advised that the latest of Tavener's musical 'icons' is a living, moving, highly stylised stage ritual. My feeling is that you need to be there, a participating observer, seeing as well as believing. The long, abstracted drone on F - the 'eternity note', the divine presence - is instantly redolent of the meaningful A natural which rises from the opening bar of The Protecting Veil. But chiming crotales and the cool femininity of flutes immediately lend Mary of Egypt an almost corny 'Easternism', a quasi-primitive theatricality. And the way to salvation is long. Reiterative vocal chants dominate (the first, a full seven minutes): mostly the mood is contemplative - the underlying tempo could make Japanese Noh Theatre seem impatient.

Temptation kept drawing my finger to the fast-forward, but like Mary and Zossima, the holy-man, I resisted. Salvation does eventually bring its rewards, among them a sublimely melismatic duet on the word 'Bless', its vocal tessitura in marked contrast to the earthbound humility of Mary's prayer of contrition. Strange shining moments, then, but oh, those eternal half-hours. ES

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique - Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / Gardiner (Philips 434 402-2)

'ORIGINAL 1830 orchestration on period instruments,' says the CD cover, Well, perhaps the huge cathedral bell heard in the finale was around in Berlioz's time, but its conveyance to the super-dry acoustic of the Paris Ancien Conservatoire suggests late twentieth century trickery. Couldn't Gardiner have found some convincing contemporary bell effects, perhaps with the extra pianos suggested by Berlioz? Mendelssohn heard it done that way - though he thought it was ghastly.

That may be just one instance, but I can't help feeling that it's symptomatic. The problem with this performance is not in the timbres - the instruments sound wonderful, especially the sharply-focused timpani and the barking ophicleides in the finale. It's in the cleanliness - the efficiency of everything. Surely in a wholehearted period performance of such a ground-breaking virtuoso work there would have been some sense of risk - of the orchestra being driven to its emotional and physical limit. If there were any little accidents or signs of fraying at the edges, they've been edited out. And while Gardiner's sense of style is impressive, I'm too much aware of it as 'style' - carefully calculated posing rather than inner compulsion. Add the airless acoustic and the effect is more than slightly clinical - an interesting demonstration, but hardly a triumphant return to life. SJ

THE pursuit of a thoroughly 'authentic' Fantastique has taken Gardiner one step further than even Norrington (EMI) - namely the Ancien Conservatoire, Paris, where this symphonie revolutionnaire first happened. It's a dry, cut-to-the-bone acoustic, bursting at the seams to accommodate Berlioz's outsized and outspoken orchestra. But you're inescapably there on the front lines, nothing between you and those precisely imagined, still startlingly original sonorities.

No question about it, you can feel a new breed of symphony orchestra in the making: old instruments at the very limits of their possibilities, others in transition striking out in new directions. Paganinian strings enflame but do not consume 'Reveries - Passions'; the four harps are a real feature of Berlioz's shimmering 'Ball' scene, not merely a little tinsel glinting from a plushy carpet of strings (Gardiner's luxury is a swooning slide in the second phrase of the tune), while the somewhat quaint dance-band cornet is always a distinctive presence.

Best of all, though, is the grainy raucousness of colour which invades the grisly hallucinations of the last two movements: accept no modern substitutes for the French military-band timbre of those cornets in their jaunty quick-step to the scaffold (narrow-bore trombones growling below), or the four bassoons, serpent, and ophicleide which intone the Dies Irae at the 'Witches' Sabbath'.

Gothic church bells, the eeriest flute and oboe glissandos, cavorting E-flat clarinet and reedy, cackling bassoons - all of it has a naughty-but-nice sense of 'original sin' about it. As for the shrieks of derision from piccolo-led woodwinds at the close . . . who needs the opium? ES

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