Recording of April 1999: John Tavener: Eternity's Sunrise

JOHN TAVENER: Eternity's Sunrise
With: Song of the Angel, Petra: A Ritual Dream, Sappho: Lyrical Fragments, Funeral Canticle
Patricia Rozario, Julia Gooding, sopranos; George Mosley, baritone; Andrew Manze, violin; Choir & Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music, Paul Goodwin
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907231 (CD). 1998. Robina Young, prod.; Mike Hatch, eng. DDD. TT: 65:03
Performance ****
Sonics ****

At the end of the last century—before phonograph records, television, "talking" films, and video—the world's concert halls and opera stages enjoyed the music of real live composers: Dvorák, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini, Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Saint-Saëns, Ives, and Strauss. Before this century's end, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Britten, Bartók, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, and Shostakovich had come and gone.

Now, in this plugged-in, turned-on world, where music is instantly available in a variety of forms and formats, and when classical music so desperately needs new music to stoke its dwindling fires, we sadly can count on one hand the composers whose new work inspires more than passing interest.

Unquestionably, John Tavener is one of those whose works are anticipated, speedily performed, and recorded by top-rank record companies and performers. But despite his music's considerable popularity and the composer's near-cultish following, Tavener is not in the class of the above-mentioned composers. That's not to say that we shouldn't listen. On the contrary, Tavener is an ideal commentator on and reflector of our own time, where form in art—and in life itself—is increasingly nebulous, where the traditional distinctions of melodic shape and harmonic structure mingle in mysterious new ways, and where expected temporal markers are absent.

Take this recording's title work, commissioned by the Academy of Ancient Music for its 25th anniversary. Eternity's Sunrise is a tour de force for superhuman soprano, handbells, and Baroque instrumental ensemble. It combines elements of new-agey spirituality and a William Blake poem with a musical setting that seems to hang and swirl in a timeless, eternal universe. We've heard some of this before, especially from Arvo Pärt, but here the focus is on a soloist who must sing effortlessly in the upper register in long phrases that sometimes seem to be delivered without a breath being taken (a recording-studio trick?). Patricia Rozario, who's performed Tavener's work on many previous occasions, is nothing less than astounding in her vocal control, and in her unfaltering expressive intensity.

Because of the range and melismatic nature of the vocal writing, it's impossible to understand the words, but perhaps Tavener intended this work to be this way. Handbells, apparently, represent "the angels" and the orchestra represents "heaven." Unfortunately, the sonic environment created in this 11-minute work, which was written specifically for a Baroque ensemble, gives no rationale for employing the unique timbres of period instruments. We could just as easily be listening to modern strings.

Much more compelling is Song of the Angel, again featuring Rozario, accompanied by instrumental ensemble and violinist Andrew Manze. Anyone who follows the early-music scene knows of Manze's extraordinary talents. Here he serves in the background as Rozario delivers an engaging, lyrical song—a short and pleasing setting of the word "Alleluia." Petra: A Ritual Dream is even more interesting. A work for baritone soloist, six-voice chorus, and instruments, it's truly a dreamlike expression of a text by 20th-century poet Giorgios Seferis, which closes with the stanza "Here ends the works of the sea, / Those who will live here someday. / May they remember us. / And we will teach them peace."

The most musically complex work—at least for listeners—is Sappho: Lyrical Fragments, Tavener's extended setting of the writings of the Greek poet. Written for two soprano soloists and Baroque orchestra, this piece gives off a more primal scent, as the melodic chains and female vocal timbres attempt, Tavener says?, to "bring us close to the uniquely feminine world of Sappho of Lesbos." Here are passages of unmetered lines, interrupted by moments of regular rhythmic pulse. Both sopranos—Rozario and Julia Gooding—are completely attuned to each other and effectively impart the work's implicit and explicit drama in such passages as "Eros once again loosens my limbs, whirls me, bittersweet, impossible to fight off, stealing up on me..." Here the orchestra gets to do more than create background effects, with sudden dynamic surges and decidedly dissonant commentary on the text.

In Funeral Canticle, the most accessible work on the program, Tavener offers the harmonic centeredness and comforting solemnity familiar from many of his earlier pieces. (Remember The Lamb, his most perfectly written, early a cappella choral work.) Taking the form of an extended harmonized chant or hymn interspersed with cantorial utterances by baritone George Mosley, this 24-minute piece for 12-voice chorus was written in 1996 as a memorial to the composer's father. Most of the text comes from the Orthodox Funeral Service; the setting is drenched in rich, lovely harmonies, and the mood is reverential, quiet, and meditative. Again, there are echoes of Pärt, most notably in the simplicity of the choral writing and the sparing use of instruments.

Fans of Tavener will revel in this varied yet cohesive program, while newcomers to his music will find this at least an intriguing and thought-provoking encounter. Still, I wondered throughout the recording why period instruments were necessary, as nothing special is done to exploit their uniqueness. But the sound is perfectly satisfying, a product of the acoustics of a London church and the skills of engineer Mike Hatch, one of the world's most knowledgeable and experienced recorders of choral music.—David Vernier