Tavener: The Veil of the Temple - World Première (Concert Review - The Church Times, 2003)

Worth staying up for

The Temple Church is a fine 13th-century building: soundly designed, and vested in the legal grandeur of the Bar. The lawyers of the Inner and Middle Temple raised almost half a million pounds to commission an epic, The Veil of the Temple, from Sir John Tavener, one of our most renowned but musically obscure composers.

A vigil more than a concert, the event was to begin at 10 p.m. and conclude 7? hours later at dawn. Thankfully, we were not expected to remain in our seats for the duration. I took my seat not knowing what to expect, awed by the sense of occasion.

The work begins with the passage of a blue-veiled woman from the east to the west end of the church. The gorgeous soprano voice of Anglo-Indian Patricia Rozario floats across the church and a solitary candle burns; an eastern dukuk responds, and the first of eight cycles has begun. A Gospel reading, more incense, another candle: the Second Movement.

And so it proceeds, each cycle the same basic set of events, but richer, deeper, bigger, and the progression of lighted candles like some device of medieval horology.

At times menacing, ominous, despairing, and yet full of calm, promise and peace, the work is ritualistic and unrelenting, held together in exquisite tension. With music and words from Islamic, Greek, Tibetan, Russian, Hebrew and Hindu traditions, it is an inspiring, massive, palpable hit.

By the time the massed choirs of the Temple Church and the Holst Singers reach the Eighth Movement, Tibetan horns, tam-tams, bells and organ have brought us to Mary recognising Christ, and herself as Hindu. This is an experience with the liturgical resonance of sacred oratorio; and a powerful sense that God is everywhere, within and without. The Temple’s Stephen Layton has achieved something remarkable, not least in the imaginative presentation of Tavener’s mystical score.

A request for no applause at the end saw the choir process out, receding from sight and sound, but not from the senses. As I emerged blinking into the London dawn, Sir John and Lady Tavener asked me how I had enjoyed it. I had, but words alone seemed incapable of communicating how I felt and the effect it had on me.

Nigel Chappelle