John Tavener’s work represents a duplicate challenge for any performer: it is often highly unorthodox in its rhythm and meter, as well as deeply dependent on an appropriate and receptive venue and atmosphere.
A successful show would therefore have to check both of those boxes; the record-release gig for ‘Iepo Oneipo’ on the sixteenth may have managed that, but not with a steady hand… which is a shame, really, because it started out so well, and its only real failing was in not living up to the stunning two openers.
The amazing ‘Song For Athene’ and ‘The Lamb’ were all the more effective for being performed back-to-back. Choir-only, with no backing orchestra, they perfectly harnessed the anticipation in the room, the verses nearly bursting from restraint, then the gorgeous, humble and resigned refrains adding palettes of wild, deep and impenetrable colour. The rest of the show had its highlights, to be sure: ‘Iepo Oneipo’ and the ‘Three Holy Sonnets’ were technically impressive in the extreme, and although it was the weakest of the choral numbers, Tavener’s disarming rendition of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ wrapped things up very nicely. Baritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson especially shone, his voice exuding an unnerving yet charismatic resonance in Schuon Hymnen’s hypnotic “mit der Sonne nur bekleidet” refrains.
But nothing ever really topped those openers, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps it was a lack of confidence in the players, or perhaps too much— an overconfidence that left them without the necessary level of intensity, or maybe there’s just something about the perfect purity of a well-singing, well-conducted choir performing Tavener’s deceptively gentle, yet orgasmically beautiful work that, quite simply, leaves mere instruments lacking.