Tavener: Lament for Jerusalem

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COMPOSERS: Tavener
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Tavener
WORKS: Lament for Jerusalem
PERFORMER: Angharad Gruffydd Jones (soprano), Peter Crawford (countertenor); Choir of London & Orchestra/Jeremy Summerly
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557826
The title may have all sorts of uncomfortable resonances today, but John Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem is in fact a meditation on an age-old theme. Jerusalem the Holy City of three different faiths becomes the archetypal sacred place: a real location in which one may encounter the Divine. So why a lament? Because what Tavener calls ‘the endless and despairing ugliness’ of modern life – religious as well as secular – shows how estranged we have becomes from the truly sacred. So we hear Jewish, Christian and Muslim (Sufi) texts in which love and grief intermingle.

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As in much of Tavener’s work, ritualistic repetition (often with a minimum of change) is central. But unlike other large-scale quasi-liturgical pieces such as Resurrection or The Veil of the Temple, there is no sense of a journey, however slow and measured. The basic elements – rich, chant-like choral writing, poignant hymn-like or Middle-Eastern-inflected solos – circle around each other until the process just stops. This will be a problem for some listeners. But if one accepts that this is a rite, not a dramatic, developing piece of Western symphonic music, the contained beauty can be quite mesmerizing. It’s hard to imagine it better performed, or recorded. The choral writing in particular is a lot more difficult to sing than it sounds – full marks there, and Peter Crawford is a wonderfully dignified countertenor. Recommended to the faithful; agnostics might do better to start with The Veil of the Temple. Stephen Johnson