In this collection of choral works by John Tavener, who died in 2013, the Wells Cathedral Choir is conducted by Matthew Owens. He was appointed organist and Master of the Choristers there in 2005. They perform ten pieces which show the composer at his most reflective. They date from as early as 1985, though are predominantly late works.
Three of the works presented here (the Missa Wellensis, Preces and Responses, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are also world première recordings. The most substantial is the Missa Wellensis (Mass for Wells) itself; it was commissioned by Owens and written in 2013. The idea of setting the Eucharist for such a Choir clearly inspired Tavener and is a tribute to Victoria, although the opening is redolent of Bach's B Minor Mass. It's a somewhat speculative work which never seeks to persuade or cajole. Accordingly, the Missa Wellensis is sung here with a vision of peace. Yet it's a peace which may be almost out of reach; attaining that peace seems likely to remain incomplete – or impossible.
The producers of this CD on Signum are to be congratulated on building a sequence of music which is as refreshing and stimulating as it is in inviting reflection. The trials which Tavener endured at the end of his life after his heart attack in 2007 can hardly be overlooked when listening to the music here. The music as performed by this highly accomplished choir does more than merely hint that Tavener found a variety of ways to accept and even honor such strife.
Specifically, we must remind ourselves of the ways in which earlier poetry, earlier music, and earlier composers afforded Tavener comfort, hope and a kind of artistic salvation throughout these serene works. These include English Renaissance Polyphonists in Preces and Responses, which extends over three parts [tr.s 7, 11, 15] in particular; and George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and the King James Bible in Love bade me welcome [tr.6], They are all gone into the world of light [tr.14] and Psalm 121 respectively. Yet the Choir at no time pushes this aspect of the composer's music to suggest that we have to see any aspect of the world in the same ways as Tevener did in order to appreciate, or even understand, it.
Wells Cathedral Choir is not always recognised outside the UK for the somewhat special group that it is. A choir first sang at Wells in the Tenth Century; now it is often considered the greatest choir with children in the world. It consists of a pool of a dozen or so boys; almost a dozen and a half girls; there are also six adult countertenors, five tenors and six basses. Their style is one of easy professionalism and quiet competence. We never hear the singers straining to prove anything, nor yet eliding lines or harmonies as too intricate.
This is a hard balance to achieve in music as implicitly declamatory as Taverner's late choral works. For the composer was always seeking to express struggle, doubt and the position of belief in our lives, rather than the act of believing in and of itself. This would suggest that rhetoric could be used to convey effort. And convey it explicitly alongside the peace in certainty around which both Tavener's life and music circled. The danger would be to use overblown phrasing, overheld pauses and overdramatic changes in dynamic and tempo.
Such excesses would be completely alien to the Wells Cathedral Choir. They are not present here. Which is not to say that their singing lacks expression or commitment. The "Gloria" of the Mass [tr.2], for instance, is full of energy and direction. Yet it is not made to sound superfluously "charming" or strained. Although there is variety in the music, too, as it varies from the almost chant-like to the familiarly dramatic, Owens has his singers commend without recommending. Nor – as was perhaps not the case with Tavener's Orthodox music – does one need to be au fait with the idiom really to squeeze out every nuance. This is music, a little like Mozart's last choral works, designed to appeal to humanity as a whole. And in these performances it surely does.
One feels that (although they have plenty of power in reserve) the Choir has entered into Tavener's late world – a blend of enigma and the potential for certainty – gently and respectfully. And that they – rightly – expect us to follow them. Perhaps most impressively, the Wells Choir understands the structure which it is necessary to understand in order for Tavener's (at times mildly dissonant) harmonies, and frequent modulations not to… wander. By the time we get to the "Agnus Dei", for example, the Mass is still intriguing and rich with color. Not the product of a perfunctory meander as the intervals climb and descend invoking a virtual assertion of faith as an aged acrobat climbing two parallel ladders.
The acoustic – that of Wells Cathedral itself – is spacious without ever overwhelming. In the 24-page booklet which accompanies the CD are descriptions of the works and their liturgical and literary contexts, together with brief bios of the Choir and Owens as well as all the texts (and translations for the Mass). The Lord's Prayer, Love bade me welcome, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis and Song for Athene are all available on other recordings, of course. But all the performances on this CD are thoughtfully conceived and convincingly-executed, which make it one to be recommended in every respect.
Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey