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May 27, 1997

Modern Composer

Svyati. Steven Isserlis plays the music of John Tavener. Svyati--"O Holy One"; Eternal Memory; Akhmatova Songs; The Hidden Treasure (Quartet); Chant. Steven Isserelis, cello. (RCA Victor, CD # 09026-68761-2) 1997.

From the beginning of his career, English composer John Tavener (b. 1944) has written highly spiritual, if not overtly religious, music. After his conversion in 1977 to the Russian branch of the Orthodox Church, his work, consisting mostly of choral or vocal pieces with Orthodox texts, became more explicitly religious, with "an even greater spiritual focus and intensity." This new album from RCA Victor showcases five pieces composed by Tavener between 1989 and 1995, performed by English cellist Steven Isserlis with various instrumental and vocal groups.

Though Tavener is from England and continues to live and work there, all of his music since 1977 is distinctly non-western in structure. As the liner notes to this album explain, "all of Tavener's music...has no development in the traditional sense, the western concept of traditional musical development having no place in the Eastern ethos that operates within his music." (This is a characteristic shared by Ton de Leeuw's gamelan music reviewed in this space in the previous issue.) This radically different approach to music can be somewhat unsettling at first to listeners accustomed to "classical" western forms, but it can also be exhilerating, even liberating, once the listener gets past expecting predictable forms and treatment in the music.

"Chant" for solo cello, for example, "consists of an unbroken, seamlessly flowing melody... [with] no barlines and the entire piece is a palindrome--that is, the melody turns back on itself and retraces itself backwards." This was one of the many permutations of serial music, but in Tavener, the palindromic form is not combined with other rules or constraints.

The Hidden Treasure for string quartet, composed in 1989, is also based on a palindromic motif. Tavener says "I dreamed The Hidden Treasure in the form of twenty-five notes, which I immediately saw as a Byzantine palindrome representing Paradise." (It is doubtful whether Schonberg ever conceived his palindromes as tropes for Paradise or for anything else.)

The Hidden Treasure is composed as a single continuous movement. It begins with the paradisial palindrome played by solo cello, and also closes with the same motif, in a different Byzantine tone, played "against a shimmering backdrop, [transformed] into a representation of the paradise promised to the thief, of which we know nothing." Between these two statements, the piece alternates between two moods: serene, timeless sections marked by surprising, but not jarring, harmonies and elementary but unfamilier rhythms reminiscent of folk-dance rhythms, alternating with brief sections of strongly metric, mechanical-sounding strings of chords from full quartet. Tavener describes this quartet as representing "a journey from the Paradise from which we have fallen towards the Paradise which Christ promised to the repentant thief."

It is a spiritual journey that has few familiar landmarks or guideposts, but one that can be richly rewarding to those who follow it to the end.

You can hear The Hidden Treasure quartet by John Tavener on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, June 5 at 7:30 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950. 25:25 --J. Green


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