Tavener: The Veil of the Temple (CD Review - Audiophile Audition, 2005)

Tavener's The Veil of the Temple is massive in scale and influence; the sheer number of singers (more than 200), in combination with orchestrations encompassing elements of mid-eastern, eastern Indian, Tibetan and traditional western liturgical musical traditions is staggering. All this, in combination with texts from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism makes for one mind-boggling aural experience. The work is rooted in a commission from London's Temple Church for an all-night vigil to be performed June 27-28, 2003. That work lasted eight (yes, eight!) hours; the current version was drawn as a concert-length piece from that performance, and the SACD actually uses excerpts from the original performance and an additional all-night vigil in July of that same year. The Temple Church, built in the round by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century, serves as an excellent acoustic environment for Tavener's massive work. The fact that the church figures so prominently in Dan Brown's sensationalist novel The DaVinci Code only adds a sense of intrigue to the goings-on here.

The music, while essentially based extensively on a traditional mass, is arranged in eight cycles. Cycle I is prefaced by the "Mystical Love Song of the Sufis," a quite lovely offering which is interspersed with a healthy dose of playing on a duduk, a mid-eastern reed instrument similar in character to the saxophone. This is followed by the "Primordial Call," a blast of gongs, Tibetan horns and tubular bells which is really quite striking and will test the limits of your system's endurance. Although the music throughout involves an enormous number of participants, it's really relatively subdued in nature – just avoid the temptation to crank the volume too loudly, or you'll get quite a start. From that point, a "Primordial Call" prefaces each of the Cycles – be prepared to get shaken, and often.

Unfortunately, while so much of the music and vocalizations are alternately charming, lovely and bracing, a lot of the goings on are downright overly-repetitive. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is, well, way too much of a good thing! While there was much that I really loved here, after about an hour or so I really began to feel that I'd heard it all before. Too bad they couldn't have found a way to condense it into something more like ninety minutes or so, which is really pushing most attention span thresholds.

In terms of sound quality, this disc is truly a knockout – the 5.1 surround presentation accurately captures the musical forces inside the Temple Church and offers a most compelling realization of the church's acoustic. Stephen Layton, among the very best of England's stellar crop of choral conductors, is to be applauded for his superb work here. Aside from the work's excessive length, I'd give this set five stars – as is, it gets only four, but is still highly recommended.

Tom Gibbs 

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