Review The Tallis Scholars, Taverner to Tavener, St George’s, Bristol by James Ellis 

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

It’s nearly ten years since Sir John Tavener passed away, his impact on British choral music truly a colossal influence. The Tallis Scholars are fast approaching their 50th birthday and there are no signs  of slowing down.

In this rather safe concert, both John Taverner and Tavener featured. The former a Renaissance composer, the latter the aforementioned, acclaimed composer (there was talk of a family connection, though this is disputed). Old Taverner’s music from centuries ago can be fairly dull, little seems to happen in it and his polyphony is fairly sober and unexciting. Paired with the more recent Tavener we get the usual list of hits. The Lamb from William Blake, is a sweet few minutes, As One Who Has Slept remains a fine example of the total harmony for the singers, who make it sound so easy. The Funeral Ikos is a wonderful lament, heart touchingly warm when all the singers come together to recite each of the ‘Allelujahs’, a piece already being popped down for my own memorial service. 

The pairing of the the two composers is fitting, though I myself am much more keen on Sir John. It’s the fascination with Greek and Russian Orthodoxy that he opened up to a lot of people, his popularity has never wavered. Even after his death there is buzz about his last piece Krishna will be premiered at Grange Park Opera. Even being friends with King Charles, he always seems to have been a part of the establishment and some of his music has been pretty mawkish. Having said that, I’ve been moved to tears on more than one occasion hearing his stuff live and I would say I remained a big fan. 

The dense latin names of the earlier John make his work stand out as being by him as the latter John has more poetry and is usually an English name. The Song for Athene, famously immortalised at Princess Diana’s funeral remains a fine feature, the singers defining the work as a classic, a rare treat for more recent choral music making. The bass singer maintains a drone throughout most of it, Tavener saying this was a feeling of god in the music, these drones featuring in numerous works of his. His take on The Lord’s Prayer has a gently pulsating nature, the words well known to anyone who learnt it in school or remains a Christian. 

Sat in the back row, I wouldn’t always say I was lost in the intimacy of the event, there are only ten singers on stage, after all. St George’s remained a fitting venue, the Greek mosaics lingering above the stage felt fitting. The Tallis Scholars have a deep, rich sound which is very gentle in a lot of accepts. Peter Phillips as director painted the glory of the music with a vibrant brush, he knows the singers well and wants the best for them. They all delivered great singing in a somewhat familiar and conventional programme that will please most.  

The BBC Singers perform extracts from Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple, alongside music by James Macmillan, Kristina Arakelyan, Judith Weir, John Pickard & Cheryl Frances-Hoad at St George’s on 23 February 2023. 

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