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Particularly striking are the canons in the interludes, the first of many allusions to the Western tradition. The first canon for strings draws on Bach's Art of Fugue subject, developing it in new directions and later it returns in inversion; the canons for three trombones recall Medieval and renaissance polyphony, and if occasionally a little mechanical in their development, have bite and tremendous impact, performed virtuosically by the BBCSO brass. Part of the success of the work is Tavener's restraint, notably in the distribution of the vast forces: brass are gradually brought into the work towards the last sections, where there is a galvanic increase in Wagnerian, Star Wars thunderous bass, contrasted against quieter passages for choir. Another resource little used until a special moment is the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which sang angelically from the choir stalls in overlapping phases (echoing the technique in the first piece of the concert). The booming organ is used only for two sustained chords in the final sections of the eighth section, along with the climactic brass, yet a thrilling sound. One of the original inspired touches is the ritualistic reappearance of a Divine breath gesture, exhalations by the choir, measured over several bars, while gongs and other percussion are heard, and in close dialogue with a string quartet positioned in a gallery (here half way down the Cathedral, high above). The symbolism of the quartet is also itself a rather obvious allusion to a particular European musical tradition of depicting the 'divine', enveloping the Christ in a halo of strings, whether in Bach's Cantatas or Elgar's Oratorios. From a more contemporary spatial perspective, the sound world the quartet creates is magical, and the material it plays further develops the postmodern collage of allusions to well known classics, which have some 'spiritual' or expressive quality relevant to Tavener's reading of the Islamic text. Amongst the quotations are Mozart's Clarinet Quintet slow movement (a symbol of Allah as 'friend'), Beethoven (9th symphony, slow movement), and Elgar. In that these and the aforementioned allusions form a collage of Western topoi, they both counterbalance and threaten to swamp the overt eastern Arabic elements which seem, by contrast, underemphasised. The Arabic elements comprise the tenor's complex grace notes, some rhythmically interesting patterns for tenor, echoed by choir and orchestra, and a subtle offbeat quaver note left hanging at the end of a phrase, enabling a correct pronunciation of the Arabic text.

If as a piece of music theatre, the gestural tension between confrontation and coexistence of east and west can be sustained, there are some purely musical concerns which highlight some glaring shortcomings of structure and style. The harmony is strictly governed according to a fabricated blue print, a cycle of falling thirds making three adjacent triads, which though symbolizing, for the composer, the 'music of the spheres' (originally a concept of Classical Greek music theory), has an artificial naivety that raises many questions. The progression itself, a commonplace of nineteenth century tonality, is presented during the 'Allah' sequence which opens eight of the nine main sections, as a series of simple root position triads, intoned by the tenor and chorus and echoed by the orchestra split into string and brass choirs. Introduced once it makes an impact, but on repeated hearings it becomes both predictable and dull. In the programme note Tavener states there is 'almost no repetition', which is patently untrue, even if there are subtle variants, the large scale effect relies on the ritornello-like effect of the 'Allah' sections, and the echoing of simple short phrases which describe each name. Some of the string quartet phrases also reappear rather too often: less would be more. Another weakness was the decision to make each 'Allah' sequence so blatantly a symbol of power and supremacy, and in a rather crude manner, which eventually conspired to have the opposite effect due to its rather turgid, bland ritualistic repetition, which somehow obliterated any subtlety and nuance. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and chorus intoning a static D crotchet or root position triad is rather like driving a Ferrari on a cobbled or mud tracked path. One wishes for some sort of flexibility here: even Schoenberg and Boulez softened their systems to breath musical life into the music. Taverner sets up his architectural ground plan, then sticks to it rather too rigidly: the result is a welter of good ideas but delivered with a lack of taste.

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Copyright © 27 June 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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