I am glad to see the DVD medium being used for classical music, particularly for an event as important as this one: the première of a new work by Sir John Tavener, given in St. Paul's Cathedral in London on January 4, 2000. The DVD medium has the potential to marry the best possible sound with the best possible picture quality. As with the compact disc, there is no degradation in the quality from one audition to the next, and it is easy to move around within the program – no more fast-forwarding and rewinding VHS cassettes. (One side is in NTSC format, and the other in PAL.)
Tavener's Fall and Resurrection, written after a suggestion by the Prince of Wales, to whom it is dedicated, is a large, challenging, and eclectic work characterized by its devout character and dynamic extremes. The entire work is based on a Byzantine chant, "Thy Cross we adore," but the chant is explicitly quoted only in the second half of the work. It tells the story of Man from his paradisiacal pre-existence to the original sin, his expulsion from Eden, his earthly travails as a sinner, and to the birth, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which redeems Man and brings the work full circle. For Tavener, Fall and Resurrection, an exploration of the relationship between God and Man, is full of metaphysical implications that can be expressed in music. Ambitious stuff for an hour-long choral piece!
Frightening Berlioz-like orchestral and choral outbursts representing chaos and its ramifications (e.g., Man's crucifixion of Christ) alternate with the straightforward devotions of Adam and Eve, and later, after the Fall, with the pastoral sound of the guitar and the kaval, a flute-like instrument that comes from the Middle East. A saxophone represents the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, which should give jazz bands pause! Some of the soloists sing multiple roles. Patricia Rozario is Eve, then the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene. The same soloist sings God, Christ, and the Devil. (Take that, metaphysical implications!)
This is the sort of work that takes time to sink in, and I am not prepared to pontificate on its strengths and weaknesses. Its availability on DVD is news enough, at least for the moment. The visuals are quite fine; it is wonderful to take "a tour" around the dome of St. Paul's and to see the performers so clearly. (I am not sure about the light show during the first part of the work.) The colors are beautiful and you can feel the Cathedral's space all about you. The sung texts are briefly and non-obtrusively projected on the screen. The sound is less impressive. I found it muddy, and inferior to most CDs. Perhaps it opens up in the Surround Sound format. There seem to be enough microphones placed around the perfomers. It is likely that reverberant St. Paul's itself is one of the culprits, although Tavener writes that "the work should ideally be performed in a building with a large acoustic."
The performances are fine. Kudos to Rozario, lovely in her golden-colored sari, and equally lovely of voice. (Tavener taxes her cruelly at the very end as she cries out "Ravoni!" or
"Master!") Kudos also to the choruses, who sound more confident than some of their members appear to be!
The program is introduced by Stephanie Hughes, who interviews the composer at his home. This interview, although short, says a lot about the composer and his work, and it may be worth the price of admission for Tavener's admirers.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle