Sir John Tavener says he has come to regret the paraphernalia of crucifixes and candles by which he was marketed as the standard-bearer for new-age mysticism. Even so, he remains one of the few composers at whose concerts you might be seated behind a row of Russian Orthodox priests, and this Manchester International festival/BBC Philharmonic programme featuring three world premieres was greeted by devotees as an almost spiritual event.

It is no secret that Tavener has suffered failing heath, and the new works represent a blaze of creativity as notable for its intensity as for its brevity – none of the pieces exceeded 20 minutes in length, yet all are among the most transparently personal statements the composer has ever made.

A transcendental love duet, extracted from a "pantomime" on the life of Krishna, was a playful transposition of the billing and cooing of Papageno and Papagena from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Reinforced by a row of eight flutes, the vocal line began punishingly high then became steadily higher, with tenor John Mark Ainsley ascending far into falsetto range as soprano Elin Manahan Thomas hovered in the thin air above.

If Ye Love Me was a choral supplication evoking the names of God according to Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, written for the newly formed multifaith ensemble the MIF Sacred Sounds Choir. Tavener gave the amateur voices little quarter, yet the fragility of the ensemble seemed to support the composer's belief that all major religions have become equally senile.

The highlight was a brutally dark monodrama based on Tolstoy's short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, featuring bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu and cellist Steven Isserlis. Isserlis wrapped the evocation of agonising death in a shroud of late-Stravinskian colours, while Lemalu's testimony was wracked with yelps of terrible pain. If Tavener's life's work has been a journey towards beatific light, this piece indicates he has no intention of going gently.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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