TAVENER: Iero Oneipo (Sacred Dream); Song for Athene; The Lamb; As One Who Has Slept; Birthday Sleep; Three Holy Sonnets; Schuon Hymnen; The Lord’s Prayer – Gudrun Johanna Olafsdottir, mezzo/ Hrolfur Saemundsson, bar./ Ch. Choir of Southern Iceland/ Instrumentalists/ Hilmar Orn Agnarsson – Smekkleysa SMC 16, 73:19 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

This is a superb collection of mostly familiar Tavener (Song for Athene is as radiant as any I have heard) with some unfamiliar works as well. A world premiere recording is included too: Three Holy Sonnets by John Donne is an early piece crossing the late 1950s and early 1960s which is a small sample of what Tavener, who died in 2013, would come to offer after his avant-garde period ended, which was never that long to begin with. Iero Oneipo is something he wrote after the music came to him in a dream during a stay in Greece for Holy Week in 1999. This tranquil piece takes its text from the services of the Byzantine ordo for that sacred time.

As One Who Has Slept is a meditation on the themes of Christ lying in the grave as portrayed during the liturgy of St. Basil the Great on Holy Saturday morning, the “first” liturgy of the resurrection. A hymn to the incarnation is given in Birthday Sleep, set to the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins. The Swiss metaphysician and Sufi Sheikh Frithjof Schuon provides the inspiration for a rather strange piece taken from a series of visions he alleged to have of the Virgin Mary as a “primordial and universal woman”, and appearing naked as well, which some might find offensive, though Tavener is careful to cloak his description of this “sacral erotic nature” as cleanly as possible. In actuality the texts are taken from the biblical Song of Songs and allusions to the “woman clothed with the sun” from the Book of Revelation. Its music is interesting, and certainly shows how far Tavener strayed from his conversion to Orthodox Christianity years earlier.

The choir is magnificent and the sound first class. Wholeheartedly recommended.

—Steven Ritter