THE last time I heard the music of John Tavener, in the Bridgewater Hall, the great man himself was present to hear the première of three new works at the 2013 Manchester International Festival.
What stunned me most, then, was his piece Mahámátar, written for Werner Herzog’s short documentary film Pilgrimage, which was shown on screen behind the BBC Philharmonic as they played. The music swirled between the serene and the agonised, as Herzog focused on the faces of Mexican Roman Catholics progressing on their knees, and Russian Orthodox pilgrims crawling on their bellies across the ice to the tomb of St Sergei.
Tavener’s score explored the borderline between pain and ecstasy, as Herzog penetrated peasant superstition to plumb the inner depths, where people of all faiths find that there are no words. At the close, it was as if the audience had been witnesses to worship. Something transcendent hung in the silence that followed.
Afterwards, waiting in the foyer, I was startled to see Tavener himself appear in a wheelchair, from the same exit. He paused momentarily beside me. I had never met him, but I was seized with the impulse to thank him for all his music over the years. He looked startled, but gave me a gracious smile. So last weekend’s Bridgewater concert of his music by the Tallis Scholars had, for me, a memorial feel to it.
The concert interwove his music with that of his near-namesake, the Renaissance composer John Taverner. Two giants of English choral music the conductor Peter Phillips called them. It was an interesting counterpoint. The sublime sonorities of the 16th-century churchman spoke of transcendence, while the modern musician touched something more personal, which spoke of incarnation without sacrificing any sense of mystery.
Tavener’s Funeral Ikos set the tone for that, in its plangent setting from the Orthodox funeral service at the burial of priests. It was there, too, in his setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb”, whose idiosyncratic Gnosticism is imbued by Tavener with a tender joy.
I have long been a fan of these pieces on CD, but this was the first time that I had heard them live, and I was struck, as never before, by the drama added by the separation of voices, and the subtleties of colour and timbre which live performance added. (The same was true of an intensely theatrical Allegri Miserere, which placed a choir of five on the stage, four singers in the organ loft, and a solitary tenor cantor in a high side-gallery.)
The final Tavener offering was Song for Athene, which had been performed as the cortège of Diana, Princess of Wales, left Westminster Abbey in 1997. Written by Tavener after the untimely death of a young half-Greek actress friend, its enfolding of Shakespeare — “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” — within the Orthodox musical tradition is the perfect example of what Tavener called “the necessity to move music out of the Church and back into the marketplace”.
Tavener’s replacement of liturgical with sacred music is part of his genius for our time.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.