As Mahler discovered, it can be better for a composer not to go into details about the philosophical stimulus of a piece of music. All you really need to know about Sir John Tavener's Requiem, commissioned as part of the city's Capital of Culture programme, is that it is textually multi-faith and musically multidimensional. And lasts a mere half-hour.
Tavener is seriously ill, which added a poignancy to the premiere of his latest work. Cast in seven movements, and drawing on lines from the Requiem Mass and the Koran, as well as Sufi texts and Hindu words from the Upanishad, it was composed for a cruciform space, here Liverpool's atmospheric Catholic cathedral.
With Vasily Petrenko conducting (though semaphore may have been more appropriate), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was widely spread out in the shape of a cross in the circular nave. Timpani and powwow drum were to the south, Tibetan temple bowls to the north, brass and choir to the east, strings, soprano and tenor to the west. Elevated, at the centre, was the solo cello, symbolising Primordial Light, played by Josephine Knight.
The Requiem, from its ghostly opening, stratospherically high on the cello, to its ethereal ending, shows Tavener's gift for conjuring massive, if skeletal, architectural spans of music from modest material, relying on ritualistic development to substantiate wraiths of sound. Slender it may be on paper, but in performance the score creates an immediate ambience.
Dramatically polarised between movements of, variously, austere rigour, devotional intensity and shimmering beauty, the fourth movement, "Khali's Dance", is a whirlwind of agitated rhythm, punchy vocal writing, and a toccata-like line for the tireless solo cello. Unamplified throughout, Knight gave a natural, unforced account of the taxing solo-cello part.
Elin Manahan Thomas and Andrew Kennedy were splendid exponents of the soprano and tenor solos respectively, capturing the music's vaguely hallucinatory idiom. Petrenko marshalled his scattered forces impeccably, avoiding any hint of this luminous landscape sounding unfocused. And the RLP Choir, here as in a thrillingly sonorous account of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, contributed to an effect that was both vividly spectacular and unearthily compelling.