Tavener: Choral Music (CD Review - BBC Radio 3, 2004)

And finally to my favourite batch of this week's choral releases. Stephen Layton, and his choral group Polyphony, have excelled themselves this time. I won't say who the composer is just yet but, if I tell you that he's been knighted and has shoulder-length hair (no, Andrew Lloyd-Webber doesn't have long hair any more!) you'll very likely recognise the distinctively meditative style of choral writing.

Opening of Birthday Sleep

This superb new release by Polyphony under Stephen Layton contains 85% newly-recorded material, so most of the contents has been composed within the last five years. What I am enjoying most about this CD is that it shows that you can't pidgeonhole Tavener's music. If you know you're listening to Tavener, that's one thing. But I'm, not sure that would be your first guess if you were listening to lots of the music on this recording. What you will find is that you'll be transported by the actual recording, which the nice men from Hyperion have dealt with so proficiently. The shear sound of this CD is ravishing, as is the voice of this young Soprano soloist.

Soprano Amy Haworth soaring about the choir as representation of the Virgin Mary clad in golden sunlight. That texture seems to be hinting at a new harmonic departure for Tavener, and it's just one of many spine-tinglingly wonderful moments on this CD. Indeed, it's difficult for me to praise this CD highly enough because, I'm ashamed to say, I wasn't expecting to be as bowled over by it as I have been.

Polyphony fields 25 singers for this project and for this repertory, I think you've got about a good a choir as you could possibly get. Stephen Layton directs with clarity and sensitivity. In fact his expert pacing is the main reason for this recording's success. This is one of Layton's best CDs yet, and that's saying something.

As I say, the recorded sound is exemplorary, using to full effect the supportive acoustics of the Temple Church, where Stephen Layton is Director of Music. And this disc has done much to convince me of Tavener's powers of invention as a composer. Clearly all of his recent music fits into a certain stylistic category - spiritual minimalism, they call it. But within that box there's a wide, expressive pallette. As ever, it helps to follow the words if you really want to get inside the music. But with singing of this quality, it's also quite easy just to be seduced by the sumptuous sound of these beautifully controlled voices.

Jeremy Summerly 

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