Tavener: The Veil of the Temple (CD Review - Chicago Tribune, 2005)

You've never heard anything quite like Sir John Tavener's "The Veil of the Temple." The work originated as an all-night, seven-hour Easter "vigil," in which form it received its U.S. premiere in July at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The British composer has condensed it to two hours for this first recording, taped live in London's famous Temple Church, which commissioned it and where it had its world premiere in 2003.

"Veil of the Temple" represents the opus summa of Tavener's ruminative mysticism to date, drawing on Western and Eastern Christian traditions, with Hindi and sufi chants mixed in. The performing roster is huge: chorus of 120, vocal soloists, organ, brass and percussion ensembles, Tibetan horn, temple bowls and Indian harmonium. The score spans eight full "cycles" and many subsections.

The piece opens with cymbal crashes over the drone of organ pedal tones, followed by a high soprano descant (effortlessly floated by Patricia Rozario), an agitated choral section and then massed voices extolling the risen Christ in a radiant burst of ecstatic song. Tavener, as is his wont, deploys long stretches of musical stasis to put the listener in a meditative mood. Musically, not everything is on the same exalted level (the dissonant-cluster harmonies can be irritating), but the composer evidently has reserved the most inspired sections for this 120-minute precis.

To music that's challenging in every respect, the 37-member male (with boy trebles) Temple Church choir, along with the 99 mixed voices of the Holst Singers, bring crisp, well-tuned ensemble and palpable fervor of sound and expression. The choristers receive splendid support from the various instrumentalists and brass players of the English Chamber Orchestra and are conducted with great skill and dedication by Stephen Layton. The live recording captures the cathedral (and, indeed, communal) ambience that's essential to this music.

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