Friday 9 September 2016

Very fine performances of sacred works by John Tavener from the Wells Cathedral Choir directed Matthew Owens, including some World Premiere Recordings, on a new release from Signum Classics

The British composer, Sir John Tavener’s (1944-2013) musical style developed from the more avant-garde works such as cantata The Whale, premiered in 1968, to a minimalist approach in such works as The Protecting Veil. His conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 became a major influence on his work which continued to develop right up to his final works.  

A new release from Signum Classics brings together a number of Tavener’s sacred works from the 1980’s, 1990’s and the last years of his life in very fine performances by the Wells Cathedral Choir  directed Matthew Owens  that include some World Premiere Recordings.


Missa Wellensis (2013) written at the suggestion of Matthew Owens and first performed at Wells Cathedral in 2014, receives its world premiere recording here. Tavener brings the most lovely sonorities and textures as the Kyrie appears, wonderfully realised by Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir. Here Tavener builds his vocal layers from a simple idea that is most effective with this choir beautifully controlling the music as it moves through gentler, quieter sections arriving in lovely vocal surges.  

There is an exultant Gloria that continues the rise and fall of the Kyrie with some terrific overlay of voices. There are passages of deeper sonorities as the music falls quieter before higher voices sound out again joyfully. Midway there are some quieter, dissonant moments before a glorious, exultant conclusion.

The fast moving Sanctus and Benedictus has subtle dissonances, wonderfully sung by this choir with a quieter, gentler Benedictus that brings lovely rich sonorities, really quite lovely.

The choristers open the Agnus Dei handling the difficult intervals superbly, finding a fine tempo before tenors join to slowly take the Agnus Dei forward. The choristers return as the two lines alternate only to join the whole choir for the Dona Nobis Pacem.

There is a tremendous directness to this setting as well as much beauty.

Tavener wrote his setting of the Orthodox Vigil Service in 1984 and it was first performed at Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford. From this work comes a most lovely setting of The Lord’s Prayer which slowly unfolds, again with a quite affecting simplicity before slowly rising to a sonorous conclusion.

Love bade me welcome (1985) is a setting of a text by George Herbert written to mark the enthronement of the Bishop of Winchester. Trebles rise over the choir in the opening, gently and carefully leading through this fine setting with some lovely harmonies and passages of fine luminosity.

Receiving their first recordings here Preces and Responses were first performed by Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir during Evensong on 18th May 2014. Tenor cantor, Iain MacLeod-Jones opens Part One to which the choir respond each time rising with a real freshness and glow.

Psalm 121: I Will Lift up Mine Eyes unto the Hills (1989) was written for the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. It rises with fervour finding many moments of passion with an underlying choral drone. Later there is a passage of richer sonority before rising again in passion.

This is a spectacularly fine setting.

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ (1986) were, as the title suggests, written for Kings College, Cambridge who first performed them in 1987. The setting of the Magnificat is strikingly original with the trebles weaving a rather Eastern melody, developed by the tenors through passages of greater passion, this choir finding a terrific strength. The Nunc dimittis opens deep in the basses, reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant before rising through the choir, proceeding slowly and with a lovely flow. The basses bring a terrific ‘Glory be to the Father’ quite wonderfully done before the choir bring a lovely conclusion.

Iain MacLeod-Jones is again the tenor cantor in Part Two of Preces and Responses with the choir bringing lovely, angelic responses, moving through some fine descending phrases, full of gentle nostalgia, very Anglican in feel. Part way there is a lovely gentle setting of the Lord’s Prayer before rising at ‘And grant us thy salvation.’ This is a beautifully shaped performance with the extended chants finely done by this cantor and with exquisite little ‘Amens’ from the choir.

Song for Athene (1993) was written in memory of Athene Hariades with a text from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Orthodox Funeral Service. For this performance in memory of the composer, the text is suitably changed in accordance with Tavener’s own performing intensions. It rises mysteriously out of the lower choir, quietly developing through some wonderfully gentle passages where the choir keep an underlying low drone, beautifully paced and nuanced. The choir find some terrific sonorities before rising magnificently only to arrive at a hushed end.

Prayer for the healing of the sick (1998) takes a text by Mother Thekla, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Dormition at Whitby, Yorkshire, England. Here bass Christopher Sheldrake opens alone before the choir quietly enters a quite wonderful vocal texture as the music gently rises and falls before being repeated and developed. This bass brings some wonderfully controlled singing, quite exquisite.

They are all gone into the world of light (2011) is a setting of a text by Henry Vaughan where the choir bring lovely luminous textures as they rise through this lovely work with its rising and falling theme.

Iain MacLeod-Jones returns for the brief Final Responses of Preces and Responses receiving an uplifting response from the choir. 

Wells Cathedral Choir is finely recorded in the large acoustic of Wells Cathedral and there are excellent booklet notes together with full Latin texts and English translations.

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