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Tavener's large scale music is more than mere concert fare, it is an immersing experience, one which seems to make little demand on its audiences -- on account of simple harmonies and gestures, yet in fact makes great demands, requiring a suspension of time, and concentration through vast spans of minimal activity. This can be both infuriating and energising, and indeed it can be both in the same work, as here.
Not as long as some of the large works, The Apocalyspe (1994), The Veil of the Temple (2002) of Song of the Cosmos (2000), at seventy minutes it is also just long enough. The structural design is ingenious and if simplistic, its redeeming quality is that it sustains and indeed develops tension towards a powerful structural climax and evocative recession that is exciting and successful. Paradoxically the large structure is built of short sections combined additively, the details of which the composer himself explains: a division of 99 names of Allah into nine groups of eleven names, each vocal section interspersed with an introductory solo-choral flourish on 'Allah' and a contrasting instrumental interlude, apart from the very last which acts as a climax and recession to tranquillity. The interesting aspect of this is the multi cultural emphasis it gives: the structure is based on the Hindu theosophy about the sevenfold constitution of Man, the text setting is from Islam, the ritual repetitions hark back to Taverner's Byzantine works, and the overall dynamic dramatic trajectory is Western: it builds up from a slow and widely paced beginning, serene and uni-dimensional, towards the later sections in which contrasts and conflicts become more extreme, the confrontations working towards a climax.
Yet if one were to compare this with earlier works, there is less overt 'eastern' influence in the musical content, it is less modal and more tonal, although there are hints of modality in the main solo role of the tenor, who intones the chant gesture to 'Allah' and each of the names, to be repeated ritualistically by the double chorus. The chorus repetitions are sometimes, as in the first sections, variants, and are in turn repeated or varied by the orchestra, again subdivided clearly, unambiguously, into strings and brass choirs. Similarly the introductory 'Allah' sequence of tenor, choirs, strings and brass is followed strictly each reappearance, changing only subtly through abbreviation, later on. For each name, the character is often brought out in word painting (Allah 'on high' rises sharply ) or in the moods, which broadly painted, are either meditative, plangent or jubilant. Certain gestures which are imbued with quasi serious symbolism, such as the Tibetan Bells and tam tam strokes, symbolically placed every 99 beats, bring the texture alive and make sometimes witty contrast with the surrounding sustained textures, yet the exotic aspect of these sounds are lost in the welter of resonance.
Copyright © 27 June 2007
Malcolm Miller, London UK