Tavener’s The veil of the Temple, when it was first performed, extended throughout a whole night containing some seven hours of music. However a year later Tavener produced a shortened version, extending to rather over two hours, and it is this revision of the work that we are given here. The recording was however made from the occasion of the first full-length performances in 2003, and was first issued on RCA in 2005. One might almost complain that in this Signum reissue the opportunity has been missed to give us the work absolutely complete, but one gathers from reviews of the original performances that the music involved a considerable amount of sheer repetition – not altogether avoided here. This abridged version does have the imprimatur of the composer who designed the revision specifically to allow for concert performance. There is certainly no sense of discontinuity occasioned by the cutting.
Mind you, we should be grateful for the opportunity to hear any of the music at all. Throughout his life Tavener was always drawn to the grand and expansive, and a number of his choral works were on a very large scale indeed. This tendency towards the gargantuan began with Ultimos Ritos in the 1970s, expanded through works such as The Apocalypse given at the Proms in the 1990s and culminated in the even more extensive Veil of the Temple. Of these very large-scale works we have no recordings at all: two movements from Ultimos Ritos, not then completed and not so titled, were included as fillers on the old Apple recording of the Celtic Requiem – and apart from that, nothing. Even his opera Mary of Egypt, once available on a pair of Collins CDs, appears to have disappeared from the current catalogues. We have multiple recordings of Tavener’s smaller-scale choral works, which testify to the enduring popularity of his music. However, the reaction of the critics at the time to his full-evening pieces – usually centring on allegations of repetitiveness, lack of variety, and so on – have militated against any attempt by commercial companies to issue recordings. It is worth noting that transcriptions of various BBC recordings can be heard on the internet.
In this abridged form, The veil of the Temple has considerable variety of texture which to a considerable extent gainsays the allegations of repetitiveness that so exercised the ire of some critics. On the other hand, there is not much in this music which we have not heard before in other Tavener works. We open with a long melismatic chant, followed by the familiar panoply of subterranean rumblings from bass voices, resonant gong-strokes, which sound magnificent in the resonant acoustic of the Temple Church, and so on. Those whose knowledge of Tavener is restricted to works such as The Lamb or the Song for Athene, so memorably performed at the funeral of Princess Diana, will recognise the use of deep bass drones underpinning gently moving choral harmonies above. This is simply to state the obvious fact that Tavener’s music has a general uniformity of style, a unique signature which it would be singularly foolish to expect him to alter substantially. Seen in this light, The veil of the Temple can be viewed as a compendium, a retrospective review of his work to date. Only in an age with a fixation on ‘originality’ at all costs would one expect a composer to change style completely in every one of his works.
That said, it is unexpected in the movement Alleluia, Theos Estatos (CD 1, track 8) to find a distinct – and undoubtedly unconscious – melodic echo of the final section of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical Mass, a work which approaches the subject of religious faith from a diametrically opposed viewpoint. Bernstein was a tortured agnostic; Tavener’s religious belief formed a central element in all his music. In The veil of the Temple he expands this beyond his espousal of the Greek Orthodox liturgy into a pantheistic use of influences from a number of disparate creeds (Islam, Buddhism), although his texts remain predominantly Christian. In the setting of The Lord’s Prayer (CD 1, track 20) he employs rich-voiced and positively romantic-sounding choral climaxes which are rare in his other works, and the following Primordial Call, dominated by organ and gongs, is impressive indeed. The movement Te Re Rem (CD1, track 25) even has a use of overlapping voices which harks back to the Nomine Jesu of Ultimos Ritos but also recollects elements of Tippett’s ecstatic The Vision of St Augustine.
At the beginning of the second CD Patricia Rozario is beautifully distanced in her delivery of Absolved in the mirror, and the lack of clarity in her diction which has occasioned concern in the past is of no consequence here. The setting of the Hesychast Meditation (CD 2, track 4), with its high choral lines floating over low sustained basses, has again all the rapt sense of mystery that has helped to make the Hymn to Athene such a popular piece. Here we find a return of the Bernstein-like harmonies in combination with the overlapping melismatic soprano lines. The setting of Mother of God (CD 2, track 7) has a radiant luminosity with rich harmonies of rare quality. At the end of Cycle VII Simon Wall is very beautiful indeed in his extended solo declamation of a text from the Gospel of St John, at nearly a quarter of an hour the longest single movement we are given here, even when the protracted setting contains elements of repetition (CD 2, track 9). In the final Cycle the rending of the Veil of the Temple, a Dies irae moment indeed (CD 2, track 13), is heralded by a full-throated choral chant declaimed over ringing bells and gongs which is absolutely thrilling. It is succeeded by a passage proclaiming that "the temple is not destroyed forever" in which it is tempting to suggest that the quotation of the beginning of Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan is not altogether accidental (CD 2, track 14, 1.06). What follows has a sense of ecstatic serenity which is far removed from Wagner’s altogether more erotically charged vision. The final Shantih (CD 2, track 18) has a primitively repetitive rhythm which recalls Karl Jenkins as much as anyone else before it fades into the distance.
One is delighted to be able to report that, although this set is a reissue of an earlier release, full documentation including texts and translations is provided. We also have substantial essays and analyses by Robin Griffith-Jones (Master of the Temple), the composer himself, and Brian Keble; quotes from reviews of the original performances; and a biographical review of Tavener’s career by Elizabeth Seymour. Altogether this is a model of what such a release of modern music should be, a substantial booklet of 74 pages which really helps this listener to appreciate the work.
The performance itself, as far as one can tell, is immaculate both in control and feeling. The recording gives some evidence that it is a live performance. There is some coughing from the audience between movements and that could perhaps have been edited out. It captures the atmosphere of the church with admirable fidelity. As for the spatial dimensions of the music – with the performers widely scattered around the listeners – these are well in evidence. The solo contributions are excellent, although it seems rather unfair to give Patricia Rozario solo billing when her male colleagues are equally in evidence although acknowledged only in the individual track-listings.
This is much more than simply a record of a very special musical event; it is a fitting testimonial to a composer whose ability to reach out from the esoteric field of ‘modern music’ to engage directly with listeners is all too rare. Those listeners should hasten to acquire this set without delay, before it disappears again from the catalogues. When listening to the discs, as with all Tavener’s music, it is best experienced in a darkened room illuminated by candles, a relaxing glass of wine, and preferably a halo of incense.
No mention of the fact is made in this Signum release, but from what I can make out this recording is a re-release of the RCA/BMG recording reviewed by John Quinn back in 2005. For a more detailed look at the work his review is very useful indeed. The Veil of the Temple exists in a version which takes us through an all-night ‘vigil’, though as the composer stated, lacking a formal liturgical or ceremonial function. This is the ‘concert’ version of the work which preserves some of the music from all of the cycles, though Cycle II remains complete. This continuity is important, since the effect of the work as an entirety is one which takes us gradually from sparseness to the ‘awesome grandeur’ of the final three cycles – ‘a symbolic unveiling from darkness towards light.’
With John Tavener’s death still in recent memory much attention has been given to his work of late. In interviews he stated that there was no expectation that people should sit though the full-length version of The Veil of the Temple as if it were a concert performance. Two and a half hours is also a pretty long sit, but don’t feel too guilty if your mind wanders or you need breaks of one kind or another. This is the kind of piece which works cumulatively, which demands its own time and space. How you wish to inhabit this space is entirely up to you, though the devotional aspect of the music is pretty much unavoidable.
Performed with subtle grace by these musicians, this recording is of major importance to the Tavener catalogue. Aside from some ‘essential’ or ‘best of Tavener’ extracts this is the only recording currently available and I can’t imagine it being improved upon any time soon. Even though the recording is a little vague and generalised the benefit is one of potent atmosphere rather than startling detail. Alas I don’t have the surround-sound original to hand for comparison. There are some gentle bumps and ticks which are all part of the live recording experience but hardly a distraction. All we can hope for is that someone decides to record the full version including a single vast MP3 file so we can set it running and ignore the juggling of physical discs. If you are looking for ‘if you like this, then try…’ comparisons, then the nearest work I can think of in terms of scale and devotional expressiveness is Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen, which has a comparable choral vibe but none of the primordial apocalyptic explosions of the Tavener.
In terms of highlights, yes, there are many, but what I find is that I respond differently to different aspects of the music on different occasions. Sometimes all it takes will be the unearthly duduk notes towards the beginning, at other times I need to be called back into the flock, shaken out of reverie by an impressive gong stroke. Sometimes it will be a real surprise, like the little Wagner quote Tavener throws into the Knights Templar movement of Cycle VIII. This is the kind of work which can transport you into different planes of imagining and experience, though you have to be prepared to let it take you there. If you resist then yes, this is a very big roll of cosmic wallpaper indeed. It is however one with so much remarkable beauty, depth of expression and gestural grandeur that you will more than likely find yourself drawn in, even against your will.
Signum has done us a great service in making available this recording of the reduced version of The Veil of the Temple, originally on RCA. Tavener, after all, regarded it as the summation of his life’s work. It is certainly the apex of the interest in ‘perennialism’, the belief that the same message underlies all the great religions of the earth, that preoccupied the composer during the last decade or so of his life, and thus brings together not only texts from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism but also musical elements from various traditions.
Thus there are the familiar melodic lines reflecting the influence of Byzantine chant, together with the rhythms of Samavedic and Sufi chant; the sense of contemplative stasis and shining choral sound that was characteristic of Tavener’s music from his earliest compositions; and, presiding over all this like an angel, the soaring voice of Patricia Rozario. The music’s sense of static adoration coexists, paradoxically, with a sense of movement, achieved partly through the rigour and epic grandeur of the musical structure as a whole, and partly through the sheer busyness of some of the musical textures – ‘Mary Theotokos’ from Cycle VII is a good example, with its eternally revolving canons, creating a surface positively teeming with activity over a background of extreme harmonic stasis, as is the stunning ‘Alleluia’ that follows it, a sort of aural equivalent of a star-filled skyscape. Performance and recording are outstanding. An essential testimony to the vitality of the musical and spiritual vision of the final creative phase of one of Britain’s greatest composers.