TAVERNER: Ikon of Eros
Patricia Rozario, soprano; Tim Krol, baritone; Jorja Fleezanis, violin; Minnesota Chorale; Minnesota Orch/Paul Goodwin, cond.
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 102 CD (F) (DDD) TT: 72:03 (including Tavener interview)

Sir John Taverner is a name I’ve heard often enough—the average Britcritic tends to double as press-agent, and they’ve been promoting him with special fervor since the death of Sir Michael Tippett a few years back. But Ikon of Eros is the first example of Taverner’s art that has reached my CD-player, and I’m ever so grateful I played it before sending it to a friend and former colleague whose specialty is choral music. Commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate its centennial in 2003 (although the premiere was given in St. Paul’s Cathedral there on November 13, 2002), Ikon of Eros is an hour-long treasure in four movements that began as a work for solo violin and orchestra. It still is, albeit with time-out for the soloist in Movement III, but Taverner added a Greek Orthodox cantor, soprano soloist, and mixed chorus, with specific instructions for their spatial deployment.

In Taverner’s words, reprinted in the program, “the choir acts like a Greek chorus, singing at some distance from the other performers...keywords in Greek: Metemorphótos (Transfigured), Éros (Divine love), Ékstasis (Ecstasy) and Allilúia (the unending song of the Angels). The brass instruments represent God the Father; the strings, God the Son; and the woodwind, God the Holy Spirit. The solo violin, which plays almost continuously, represents Divine Eros itself (common in its deepest sense to all religious traditions), and also our longing for God, and His longing for us. It should play from high up, above the main group....”

He requests several uncommon percussion instruments, including a “very large Tibetan temple bowl, very large tamtam, and dholak (a double-headed cylinderical drum).” Bach was an early influence, then Handel (even more so), but especially Stravinsky’s Canticum sacrum when first heard. Michael Steinberg writes in his note that Taverner cherishes asceticism and austerity, allowing “room for ecstasy as well. In Webern it is the way he comes so close to Taverner’s ideal of ‘music of silence’.” For him Schoenberg and Berg “have no silence in them. Neither does Beethoven...who does not mean much to Taverner. Transparency is another ideal. With few exceptions—notably his fervent loathing of Schoenberg, Berg and Boulez—reactions are complex and nuanced.”

Withal, the music is luminous, even when, in Ékstasis, the soprano soloist—astonishing Patricia Rozario—cantilates with a virtuosity befitting Mozart’s Constanze in The Seraglio and Rossini’s coloratura heroines at speeds that belie Taverner’s love of silence. Violinist Jorja Fleezanis, Minnesota’s concertmistress, plays with unfailing beauty of tone as well as unearthly purity. The Minnesota Chorale and Orchestra perform impeccably for conductor Paul Goodwin, and baritone Tim Krol (formerly of Chanticleer) is the cantor, impeccably coached in the traditions of Byzantine and Sanskrit chanting.
Special kudos to “Professor” Keith O. Johnson for his 24-bit HDCD recording which, in two- channel stereo, captures as well as one can imagine the spatial requirements of a work that has been nominated for a “Grammy,” and damn well deserves to win. But so does Taverner; I haven’t been so moved by a non-secular choral work since the last movement of Stravinsky’s Symphonie de Psaumes, or later on Spem in alium by 16th-century Thomas Tallis (in the late George Guest’s premiere recording on Argo with a 40-part choir of boys and men).

R.D. (January 2004)