Total Immersion: John Tavener Remembered


Spent the day up at the Barbican Centre today immersing myself (geddit?) in John Tavener’s music. A chance to see the South Bank Show documentary broadcast in 1998, plus a lunchtime recital given by students from the Guildhall School of Music featuring solo and chamber works.

The day began with a screening of Geoffery Haydon’s 1992 documentary for the BBC, juxtaposing footage of the composer from 1962 with sequences of his music and him at work in 1992. Haydon’s  documentary style – lengthy illustrative shots, often without sound, with a sparse script voiced by Tavener himself – is something from yesteryear and much-missed. Distinctive and rather beautiful, the film didn’t so much point a camera at the composer, as feature him in it, creating a sort of contextualising tableau. An excellent primer for Tavener’s career up until 1992.

Melvyn Bragg’s 82 minute mix of interviews and performances (collosall in comparison) presented a slightly more human image of Tavener. Willingly self-explanatory and self-deprecating in equal measure, watching the 1998 doc made his unexpected death all the more poignant. His personality was a revelation. Up until today, I’d assumed him to be entirely other worldly and inaccessible. The reality is something entirely different.

The lunchtime chamber concert at St Giles Cripplegate featuring musicians from the Guildhall School of Music was suitably reverential but relaxed at the same time. Pratirupa for solo piano is a massive commitment for any pianist who needs both technique and stamina. Pianist Alexander Soares is someone to keep a close eye on. Effortless yet defiant. Tavener’s Thrinos, a much shorter work in comparison, followed from cellist Peteris Sokolovskis who gave us a committed performance.  Palin from 1977 from Soares was electrifying. But it was The Last Sleep of the Virgin from 1991 played by violinists Amarins Wierdsma and Ionel Manciu, with Luba Tannicliffe on viola, Yoanna Prodanova on cello and Dorothy Raphael on handbells which undoubtedly transported. Tavener’s respect for the authority of individual sounds is clear in this work. It is as though sounds come first; everything else will follow naturally.

Given that today was, with the exception of The Lamb and Song for Athene, my first experience of a lot of Tavener’s music, I was surprised about how utterly ravishing his sound world is. His music pierces the drudgery of everyday thought, allowing something far restorative to seep in. What results from his music’s meditative effects heals and nourishes the soul. Listening to Tavener’s music is a deeply personal experience. There’s a selflessness in his works which is as appealing as it is enriching.


The disengenious will deride those who say they like Tavener because of the calming effect of his music . Such pronouncements do little for classical music’s reputation, projecting a tired air of snobbery. I heard that again today. It risked ruining the day. Was it wrong of me to shed a tear when the harmonies joined the plaintive melody in The Lamb? Was I less of a music lover because I adored Song for Athene? I hate it when those who are eager to project themselves as more knowledgeable as the rest of us by passing judgement on mainstream appreciation of a work.

The point is that Tavener has an incredible knack to stimulate a state of self-awareness in the listener. So-called classical music structures are done away with in his music. Instead, we unwittingly engage with his soundscapes; compelling stories told via riveting tonal sequences; and, lovingly constructed orchestrations. Tavener adores sound. He also delivers on what he promises. It’s not that his music will make you feel relaxed. Rather, his creations will demand you engage with your own internal psyche, forcing you to reflect on the thoughts and feelings day to day life would normally suppress. That music can have that effect on a human being is a truly amazing thing.


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