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 Recording of the Week  Sir John Tavener, 1944-2013

Sir John Tavener, who died on Tuesday, was simultaneously one of the simplest and most complex figures in British music. Born in London to amateur musicians in 1944 (the family day-job, in construction, would later give young John his first big break), he first came to attention in 1968 when The Whale, a large-scale cantata was premiered by the London Sinfonietta and subsequently recorded on Apple Records (The Beatles’ label), following a chance encounter with Ringo Starr when Tavener's brother was working on his house.

Sir John Tavener
Sir John Tavener

But Tavener’s early work, influenced by late Stravinsky and Stockhausen, was worlds away from the meditative, esoteric musical language which would mark him out as a unique voice among Western composers. In 1977 he converted to the Greek Orthodox faith which would inspire much of the ‘rapt austerity’ which suffused his mature work and – to his surprise as much as anyone’s - captivated an increasingly atheistic generation. In 1989, the premiere of The Protecting Veil (an ethereal, contemplative work for cello and strings, based upon a series of meditations on the Virgin) won him widespread critical and popular acclaim and established him as both iconoclast and national treasure.

Perhaps because of his awareness of his own mortality (he suffered from the genetic disorder Marfan Syndrome, and attendant health problems dogged his working life), Tavener seems to have had a special affinity with the elegiac, and much of his finest music was inspired by grief and loss. This affinity was to bring his music to global attention in 1997, when his haunting threnody Song for Athene filled a darkened Westminster Abbey as the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales was borne out up the nave. Written to mark the death of a young family friend, the strikingly simple piece contained many of Tavener’s hallmarks: plainchant repeated over a bass drone, dissonances generated by the alternation of major and minor tonalities, the juxtaposition of Russian Orthodox elements with Western culture as the plainsong is overlaid with Horatio’s funeral oration for Hamlet (‘May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’). And like so much of Tavener’s music, it capitalised upon what he called the ‘contemplative space’ of the church acoustic: performing his mighty Svyati for cello and mixed choir shortly after Diana’s funeral, it struck me that Tavener was a sort of choral counterpart of Bruckner in his creation of ‘cathedrals of sound’ (though to the best of my knowledge he never mentioned any particular sympathy with this composer).

‘Simplicity’ and ‘faith’ tend to crop up time and again in discussions of Tavener, yet as I followed the preparations for his seventieth birthday (now, alas, set to become memorial events) I came to realise how many conflicts and contradictions animated his relationships with faith and music. Questioned on a recent episode of the BBC’s Hardtalk – well worth watching – about the ‘divine dictation’ which he’d previously described as a compositional method, he smiled ‘Yes, that was probably a bit pretentious of me!’ (though conceded that one of his best-loved miniatures, a setting of Blake’s The Lamb, had indeed sprung fully formed into his head during a car-journey). His attitude towards his public persona was similarly uneasy: though he considered himself to be an advocate of what he wryly described as ‘tough listening’ music, he conceded that he did of course care about how his work was received.

Well, as last week’s events illustrate, it was received quite rapturously (in the best sense of the word) by performers and listeners alike. On Tuesday evening Tavener dominated my social networking timelines as singers of a wide range of ages and backgrounds shared memories of their first encounters with this extraordinary man and his work: of those who had the pleasure of working with him directly, almost all spoke of the tangible spirituality of his presence, regardless of their own religious affiliations. Good night, Sir John: may flights of angels sing you to your rest.

You can browse all currently available recordings of his music here; below are links to two collections of his music.

The Best of John Tavener

Steven Isserlis (cello); Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse; Winchester Cathedral Choir/David Hill; Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury

Available Format: CD