Tavener Weekend – review

St John's Smith Square, London
Tavener helped to plan this series before he died, and there was enormous musical variety and vitality in committed performances

Events conceived to mark John Tavener's 70th birthday have, sadly, turned into memorials, notably this sequence of concerts, which the composer helped to plan. Three works received their UK premieres, and one its first public performance.

This was Mahavakyas, dedicated to the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine and commemorating her love of both the Upanishads and of Bach, whose Sarabande from his First Cello Suite provides its musical underpinning. Soprano Ann De Renais rose to the extraordinary challenge of its vocal line while cellist Josephine Knight attacked its demanding cello part with fierce commitment.

Much larger was Miroir des Poèmes, 22 settings of the French writer Jean Biès, whose works Tavener described as embracing the mystical and the erotic, the childlike and the playful. There is certainly considerable variety as well as vitality in both the choral writing and the instrumental writing for strings that accompanies it, both of them rising to strikingly vivid and even tumultuous gestures. Martin Neary proved an inspiring logistical co-ordinator of the forces involved here as well as in the shorter, often more familiar items in the programme, drawing resolute vocalism from the English Chamber Singers and focused musicianship from the Orchestra of St John's.

The previous evening John Lubbock led the orchestra and the OSJ Voices with equal authority in two further UK premieres: the clamorous Three Hymns of George Herbert, and the raptly repetitive Prayer for Jerusalem – the latter's performance made indelibly moving by the enthusiastic participation of the Just So Singers, whose members are students with special educational needs. Other highlights included Patricia Rozario's soaring soprano in Eternity's Sunrise, and cellist Alice Neary's ecstatic tone in The Protecting Veil – both adding to the distinction of this wide-ranging tribute in a well-chosen setting.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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