TAVENER: The World; Diódia;
Many Years; Akhmatova Songs.
Contemporary British composer John Tavener has been grouped with the so-called "Holy Minimalists" -- those composers of primarily religious bent who, in contrast to the complexities of serialism, have pared their idiom down to the bone. The idea seems to be that even one note can change the world. The works are generally slow, and the effect aimed at is a meditative one. At one point, I just hated minimalism, mostly because, coming after total serialism, it confused the hell out of me. I thought that minimalist composers simply weren't playing the game.
On the other hand, I wasn't listening to the best of the genre. It took people the caliber of Adams and Reich to change my mind. But at least they reaffirmed that there are no good or bad styles, just good or bad composers.
This CD gathers together some of Tavener's work for string quartet. Tavener claims inspiration from his Greek Orthodox faith. In a sense, this puts his music almost beyond criticism. As a non-believer, I can't speak to its spiritual efficacy. On the other hand, I suspect that these pieces should connect with me on at least an aesthetic level. Some of Tavener's works reach me in this way; others don't. Tavener's idiom consists largely of modal themes against long pedal points. Repetition usually takes the place of development, and one hears very little contrapuntal interplay. There are turns of phrase and harmony reminiscent of the choral music of the Orthodox Church (I happen to like Tavener's choral music best) and here and there Greek dance rhythms and riffs.
Diódia, Tavener's third string quartet and the longest work on the program, comes from an earlier choral piece, "Toll Houses." Diódia simply translates "toll houses" into Greek. Despite some very beautiful moments, it goes on way past my bedtime. Indeed, of the works on this CD, I like the shortest ones the best. The World sets a terrific poem by Kathleen Raine to music that invokes the earth spinning through space. Many Years wishes long life to Charles, Prince of Wales. It's gorgeous. However, I suspect in one hundred years time, that no one will care much about the royal connection, much as what's happened to Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary or Handel's Coronation Anthems.
The Akhmatova songs aren't especially insightful, either psychologically or as mirrors on the poetry, and there's not even a good tune among the lot -- sort of all-purpose High Seriousness. I like the poems and care not at all for the settings.
The Vanbrugh does well by Tavener. Their sound is winning, their attacks clean, they try to find as much variety as they can within the restrictions Tavener sets. Rozario's tone is pinched and her diction mushy. If I hadn't the texts in front of me, I wouldn't know what she was singing about. It's just as well in the Akhmatova settings; I speak no Russian. But even here Rozario could vary her expression once in a while. It's an emotional monotone.
The recorded sound is intimate -- that of a small room.
S.G.S. (May 2001)