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John Tavener: MIF 2013 Reviews

Neil Sowerby is stirred by beauty in The Bridgewater Hall

Written by . Published on July 8th 2013.

John Tavener: MIF 2013 Reviews


WHAT a remarkable concert.

After a concluding piece that culminates in the agonising death of its subject – one Ivan Ilych from the Tolstoy short story – the sight of the beyond frail composer, immensely tall and gaunt, casting aside his wheelchair and hobbling across the Bridgewater Hall stage to accept rapturous acclaim from audience, orchestra and choir was unbearably moving.  

There is real substance, boosted by the presence of some equally substantial soloists, notably long-time collaborator cellist Steven Isserlis and Sufi singing legend Abida Parveen.

Which is what could be said about the whole night, which offered a roster of the composer’s many spiritual influences from Roman Catholic to Russian Orthodox to Hindu, set to music that ranged from rapt mantra to thrilling dissonance.

Tavener said recently, in a Guardian interview: “Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way. Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I've got."

Still not 70, he has survived several bouts of serious illness and the presence of three world premieres on the concert list written since is tribute to his immense resolution.

Gone, though, are the vast aural canvasses of yore. Yet brevity does not a vignette make.

There is real substance, boosted by the presence of some equally substantial soloists, notably long-time collaborator cellist Steven Isserlis and Sufi singing legend Abida Parveen.

They combine in the most spectacular piece, Mahamatar, his score for the 2001 Werner Herzog BBC documentary, Pilgrimage, filmed in Russia and Mexico.

Parveen’s plangent wail swirls across  the choral soundscape provided by the MIF Sacred Sounds Women's Choir while the grey-thatched Isserlis saws desolately and yet upliftingly to match Herzog’s stark images of devotion on the screen above them.

It’s in great contrast to the serene opening piece, the Love Duet from The Play of Krishna, where tenor John Mark Ainsley and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas as Krishna and Radha sing each other’s names over and over again in an erotic interplay symbolising the union of the human soul with God.  

Manahan Thomas, a real talent, was equally at home in In Alium, which mixed Catholic mysticism with surrealism as she sang with her pre-recorded self as pre-recorded children topple off to sleep in various languages. A life-affirming foray back into the nursery.  

It scarcely prepares you for the arrival for The Death of Ivan Ilyich of the extraordinary bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu. His vocals and Isserlis’s cello solos veer schizophrenically from harrowing to life-affirming before it all ends in a sombre death rattle of a coda.

Playful and painful, these may be the last embers of a blazing career, but I feel the last musical rites may be some little way off yet. Let us hope so.

John Tavener was part of Manchester International Festival. More details here.

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