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.