Ikon of Light = TAVENER: A Hymn to the Mother of God; Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God; The Lamb; The Tyger; Ikon of Light; Today the Virgin; Eonia – The Sixteen/ Members of Duke Quartet/ Harry Christophers – CORO COR16116, 67:26 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

This new reissue, originally intended to commemorate Tavener’s 70th birthday on January 28th, serves as well as a memorial to his life work. Tavener, who died in November of last year, was a complex man who worked towards ever-more simplistic music. Not simplistic in terms of naiveté or insignificance, but instead in terms of the music as capturing the essence of expression. A student of the music of Stravinsky and Messiaen, essential elements of ecstasy and compactness were to be the cornerstone of his later and most popular music. Compactness never applied to size of forces however; one of the glories of his music is in the largeness of expression catapulted by huge forces singing basically one, two, or three main lines of music, often Byzantine-like drones with soaring melody over the top. Arvo Part, whom Tavener considered a “kindred spirit”, never achieved the sparseness that Tavener did while maintaining such a bold and vigorous tonal spectrum. This is perhaps most aptly demonstrated in the work that Tavener considered his greatest and most important, The Veil of the Temple, a seven-hour behemoth of which only a few hours have been released on record. I agree with his assessment—that piece is surely one of the monuments of modern music, a true wonder, and should be acquired by anyone interested in the music of our time.

Here however we have music that precedes and is concurrent with the composer’s foray into Orthodox Christianity.  This influence was profound in his life and certainly in his music. It was widely rumored that the composer had abandoned his chosen faith in his last years, and several interviews do appear to portray a man in conflict; but though his music began to explore other faith traditions outside of Christianity, his personal faith remained “essentially Orthodox” as he said. These pieces reflect this influence to a large degree, especially Ikon of Light, written for the Tallis Scholars in seven movements—all sung in Greek—based on a poetic hymn by St. Symeon the New Theologian. Tavener thought it important but to me it is one of his least effective pieces, a little too direct in its point making. According to Tavener, “The first and the fifth sections are inversions of each other with the string trio representing the soul yearning for God and gradually exposing the twelve notes on which the icon is based with ejaculatory outbursts of fos [light].   The second and seventh sections are polyphonic settings of the Greek words doxa (glory) and epiphania (shining forth) respectively.    The music also contains the first use of silence as part of the overall structure in my music”. Yet the piece does not hang together, and the vocal sections seem disjointed and diffuse. Performance-wise, the Sixteen easily equal their esteemed dedicatees.

The rest of the works are very familiar Tavener fare, often recorded, easily available, but performed nowhere better than here. This is nice to have, even if I am not that wild about the principle work, though I do recognize that many will disagree. If you seek an introduction to Tavener I would probably point you to The Protecting Veil with Steven Isserlis, but for those already initiated this album becomes essential for his many fans. His loss was a great one for contemporary music.

—Steven Ritter