John Tavener Remembered review: powerful, lyrical and sparsely textured

Barbican, London
The solo passages are indulgently long – but when the cello soars, the string orchestra slowly blooms into startling beauty

John Tavener, who died last November, had made the concept of Total Immersion central to his music long before the BBC Symphony Orchestra thought of making him the subject of one of its all-day explorations: this, after all, is the composer who wrote an all-night vigil lasting seven hours. There was no room for anything quite as epic during this brief career survey, but the closing orchestral concert did include two defining works.

Akhmatova: Requiem was written in 1980, after Tavener’s conversion to the Orthodox church but before the ideas of ritual and repetition took a stranglehold on his music. It’s a powerful work, lyrical and sparsely textured – though much of its power derives from its searing text. Soprano Marie Arnet started alone, hurling the word “Nyet” into the auditorium; in a tireless, gleaming narration lasting almost an hour, Arnet was the voice of Anna Akhmatova, bearing witness to the horrors of Stalin’s Russia. Alexander Vedernikov, conducting, paced it skilfully, and Brindley Sherratt, in brief liturgical interjections, did a convincingly velvety impression of a Russian church bass.

Tavener’s cello concerto The Protecting Veil remade his name on its premiere at the 1989 Proms. The quasi-improvisational solo passages are still indulgently long; against them, however, can be weighed the beginning, when the cello soars and the string orchestra slowly blooms into a chord of startling beauty. Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt brought colour to the solo part, and made the high lines sing.

The evening had opened with the London premiere of Little Ceremonial, a 10-minute 2009 work inspired by the dream of “a procession going nowhere”. Passages of string chords alternate with similar passages for brass – but, in a work in which they are so prominent, it was a shame the brass weren’t having a better night. Still, it was interesting to hear Tavener building a strong feeling of movement from the same blocks he so often used to create stasis.

• On BBC iPlayer until Sunday.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

John Tavener – review

The composer's new works represent a blaze of creativity and rank among his most transparently personal statements, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

08, Jul, 2013 @5:14 PM

Article image
Tavener Weekend – review
Tavener helped to plan this series before he died, and there was enormous musical variety and vitality in committed performances, writes George Hall

George Hall

27, Jan, 2014 @3:57 PM

John Tavener: Towards Silence – review
John Tavener's new work is a compelling mix of sweet consonance and febrile dissonance, says Nicholas Kenyon

Nicholas Kenyon

19, Dec, 2010 @12:05 AM

Classical review: John Tavener, Requiem

This work shows new fervour and robustness, says Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

30, May, 2009 @11:02 PM

Article image
Triptych; John Tavener memorial service – review

Opera Erratica worked wonders with a cast of five. And the bells rang out for John Tavener, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

14, Jun, 2014 @11:09 PM

Article image
My hero: John Tavener by Steven Isserlis
Having asked Tavener to write a short piece for him, the cellist Steven Isserlis was delighted to be provided with the huge and deeply romantic The Protecting Veil

Steven Isserlis

15, Nov, 2013 @5:14 PM

Article image
Sir John Tavener: tributes paid to celebrated composer - 'a true original'
Tavener's publisher praises 'gentle, funny, kind, strong-willed and beautiful', while composer Michael Berkeley calls him a 'mystic'

Mark Brown

12, Nov, 2013 @8:58 PM

Article image
Doctor Atomic review – John Adams's Oppenheimer docudrama overwhelms
Adams conducted with supreme conviction this unforgettable concert staging of his visionary account of the events leading up to the first atomic test in 1945

Tim Ashley

26, Apr, 2017 @12:54 PM

Article image
Sir John Tavener, 1944-2013: an appreciation

Sir John Tavener, who died last week, wrote the sort of choral pieces that all composers wish they'd written, writes Bob Chilcott

Bob Chilcott

15, Nov, 2013 @6:29 PM

Article image
Sir John Tavener has died, aged 69

Composer was best known for his explorations of faith, inspired by his joining the Russian Orthodox church

Guardian Music

12, Nov, 2013 @5:30 PM