Spirituality and Mystery in Tavener Tribute

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  A Tribute to John Tavener: Reverie / Robbie Jacobs (conductor), St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, London, 10.4.2014 (CS)

Arvo Pärt: Bogoróditse Djévo
John Tavener: Song for Athene
Orlando Gibbons: Hosanna to the Son of David
James MacMillan: Christus Vincit
John Tavener: The Lamb
Herbert Howells: Haec Dies
John Tavener: As One Who Has Slept
Thomas Tompkins: When David Heard
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Valiant For Truth
John Tavener: Funeral Ikos
Ed Rex: This Marriage
John Tavener: The Lord’s Prayer


Reverie by name and both reverent and comme un rêve by nature – so one might have remarked of this concert given by new contemporary vocal ensemble Reverie, under the baton of conductor Robbie Jacobs, in the reverberant setting of St Dunstan-in-the-West in the City of London.  Entitled ‘As One Has Slept: Celebrating John Tavener at 70’, the ubiquitously contemplative mood of the repertoire performed – a combination of Tavener’s greatest and lesser-known ‘hits’ interspersed with compositions by like-minded contemporaries and formative influences – was indeed trance-like in its introspective pensiveness.

Reverie’s mellifluous vocal blend and evenness of phrasing perfectly captured the fusion of spirituality and mystery which characterises Tavener’s, ‘Song for Athene’, familiar to many following its inclusion in the service for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.  The low bass drone on the tonic F which runs through the entire piece had presence but was unobtrusive, and was expertly diminished to a controlled pianissimo, then allowed to bloom in the more joyful passages.  Carefully modulated alternations from major to minor mode evoked the work’s potent coalescence of grief and exaltation: ‘Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia’.  The initial plainchant-like melodies were gently placed and gradually expanded, the voices dividing confidently into multiple parts and rich block chords, the tessitura ever widening, reaching an ecstatic climax before the basses’ final tranquil ‘alleluia’.

A restful tenderness marked the opening of Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’, reflecting the innocent simplicity of Blake’s verse: ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?’, but the progression from monophony to 2-part and then 4-part texture suggested emerging depths of meaning, the rhythms gracefully reflecting the poetic structure.  Similarly, the dissonances which punctuate the modal harmonies were precisely tuned and intriguingly allusive.  The less familiar ‘As One Who Has Slept’ once more demonstrated the basses’ ability to sustain an unwavering, serene drone!  Above these still depths, conductor Robbie Jacobs wove contrasting tones and textures, representative – according to the composer – of the transitions within the Orthodox liturgy of St Basil on Easter Sunday morning.

The uncomplicated harmony and undisturbed homophony of ‘Funeral Ikos’ allowed the text to be more readily discerned than in some of the other items, consonants generally falling prey to the opulent boom of the church’s high dome.  Reverie affectingly contrasted the male trio in the first verse with the entwining female voices of the second, while the whole-choir ‘Alleluias’ resoundingly countered both; however, although the relaxed rhythms of the verses were pleasingly fluid, the synchronisation of the massed refrain responses was not always meticulous.

Interwoven between these Tavener items was British music from the past that had informed the composer’s musical language.  Unfortunately, Jacobs did not successfully manage the acoustic in two works of Elizabethan polyphony, where the clarity of the contrapuntal dialogue and the elasticity of the melodic lines was smudged by the reverbing echo.  This was particularly problematic in Orlando Gibbons’ ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, which relates the Gospel story of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: the jubilation expressed in the text was not matched by rhythmic buoyancy, and as the melodic phrases expanded in breadth and depth the emotive vocal leaps and short imitative motives lacked real definition, becoming lost within the exultant wash of sound.  The simpler antiphonal presentation of the phrase ‘Peace in heaven’ did have an angelic purity, however, while the complexity of the climax was triumphantly resonant.  Thomas Tompkins’ ‘When David Heard’ had more muscularity, with some particularly striking leaps in the bass line.  As with the Gibbons though, one felt that Jacobs had not quite conveyed the architecture of the whole musical structure, with its intricate assemblage of contrasting homophonic and polyphonic sections, duets, imitative counterpoint and madrigalisms.

Moving to the early-twentieth century, Reverie turned to music by Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Howells’ ‘Haec Dies’ – an acclamatory antiphon proper to Vespers of Easter Day – began vigorously, but again it was a pity that Jacobs did not use the consonants more explosively to stimulate impetus.  Vaughan Williams’ short motet ‘Valiant for Truth’, with its delicate alto duet, lyrical soli for basses and dark sombre colours, was more attuned to the qualities of the acoustic, however, and this was one of the highlights of the evening.  The text is drawn from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Jacobs summoned a haunting mood, the soothing washes of sound underpinned by a subdued, troubling sadness.

‘Bogoróditse Djévo’ by Arvo Pärt, one of Tavener’s contemporaries, opened the concert, its devotional mood establishing the emotional tone of the programme.  Reverie enjoyed the resonant ambiences of Pärt’s tintinnabuli effects, the whispered incantation on a sustained chord with which the prayer begins bursting into resplendent harmonic richness and celebratory melodic contours.  The two reverential moods were skilfully balanced, the more reflective mode being resumed in James MacMillan’s ‘Christus Vincit’ which tenderly presents three short phrases from the Laudes regiae or Royal Acclamations, a 10th-century ceremonial text used to place a monarch or prelate under the protection of a chosen saint.  The vocal challenges of the registral extremes – exposed stratospheric meanderings for soprano, negotiating awkward intervallic leaps; a plummeting bass line – were skilfully mastered, and the knotty, close dissonances were accurately placed, although once again Jacobs might have used these piquant musical features to more expressively communicate the text.  The urgency of the proclamation, ‘Christus imperat’, by the tenors and basses  was dramatically countered by the discreet alleluias of the female voices; the demanding solo soprano melody, coloured with Gaelic inflections, which brings the work to a meditative close was superbly controlled.

Ed Rex’s ‘The Marriage’ – a setting of words by the 13th-century poet Rumi, in which blessings are wished on a married couple – with its rather saccharine, Rutter-esque placidity, was a gentle interlude before the final work, Tavener’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer, which brought the performance to a quietly reassuring close.

This performance was the fifty-seventh concert in the 2014 Brandenburg Choral Festival which, now in its fifth year, serves as a showcase for what artistic director Robert Porter describes as ‘amateur choirs with professional standards’.  From the six concerts performed at St Martin-in-the-Fields during the inaugural year, the Festival has blossomed to encompass ‘more than eighty choirs performing seventy events in ten iconic London venues’, with each concert affiliated to at least one charitable organisation (on this occasion the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation and Marfan Trust benefited from the Festival’s support).

In what ways will or can these eighty individual choirs craft a distinctive musical identity?  Reverie describes itself as being ‘defined by its unique blend of voices and carefully crafted approach to interpretation’; one might expect such qualities from any choir, perhaps?  Technically assured, musically intelligent and sweet of tone the choir may be, but to my ear there was little to distinguish them from any other choir comprised of soloists ‘handpicked from … the esteemed choirs of the University of Cambridge … King’s, St John’s and Trinity Colleges’.  Given their undoubtedly talent, one looks forward to the opportunity to hear the members of Reverie perform more diverse repertoire and in other, perhaps less acoustically generous, venues: the choir competes in the inaugural London International A Cappella Choir Competition to be held at St. John’s Smith Square from 21 to 26 April.

Claire Seymour

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