John Tavener’s The Last Sleep of the Virgin; The Hidden Treasure

Like many contemporary composers, John Tavener uses music in the service of spirituality. He is a convert to the Russian Orthodox faith; the traditions of that faith have influenced his work as much or perhaps more than trends in music.

Tavener’s style is hard to describe. He does share some traits with composers such as Arvo Pärt, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he adheres to Pärt’s current practice of composing in triads: Tavener seems to approach each work as a unique entity, and utililizes the resources necessary to realize it in the way that he has “heard” it. The end result is often a good fit with Pärt, which makes the inclusion of Pärt’s Fratres and Summa on this CD a happy event.

The Last Sleep of the Virgin is a very subtle piece of music, scored for string quartet and handbells. It was written just before Tavener underwent major heart surgery in 1991; he notes that “[t]he eschatological character of the music is heightened by the fact that I could barely hear the music. It seemed, so to speak, almost beyond my grasp.” Indeed, in line with Tavener’s performance instructions, the liner notes recommend that the piece be played “at a barely audible level.” Consequently, the piece is a barely perceptible matrix broken occasionally by a delicate, haunting melody. It is quite beautiful and moving, and leaves the listener reaching toward something on the edge of reality.

The Hidden Treasure, from 1989, was written in memory of his mother, who died in 1988, and a very dear friend who was killed in Greece in 1989. Tavener says he dreamed the piece as a series of twenty-five notes, which he saw “as a Byzantine palindrome representing ‘Paradise’.” He thinks of the piece as a journey from Paradise to Paradise: “the constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” Consequently, it is a more robust work than The Last Sleep, although such things are necessarily relative. Hidden Treasure is also characterized by a haunting quality, quiet, contemplative passages giving relief from sections of high intensity, resolving itself as a very peaceful work with a sense of hope.

The inclusion of Arvo Pärt’s Summa and Fratres on this collection is, as I mentioned, a plus. The two seem to echo the contrast of Last Sleep and Hidden Treasure and add another dimension to the recording.

The Chilingirian Quartet (Charles Sewart, Levon Chilingirian, violins; Simon Rowland-Jones, viola; Philip De Groote, cello), with Iain Simcock on the handbells, has done very well here, providing sensitive, intelligent renditions of both Tavener and Pärt, and providing, for enthusiasts of “new music,” a “don’t miss it” collection.

(Virgin Classics, 1994)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.