Maxwell Davies: Taverner

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Maxwell Davies
WORKS: Taverner
PERFORMER: Martyn Hill, David Wilson-Johnson, Stephen Richardson, Fiona Kimm, Michael Chance, Quentin Hayes, Peter Sidhom, Stuart Kale, John Graham Hall, Peter Hall, Tom Jackman; London Voices; New London Children’s Choir; BBC SO; Fretwork; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts/Oliver Knussen, Stefan Asbury


This recording of Maxwell Davies’s early opera couldn’t be better timed, with tensions between Anglicans and Catholics simmering once again.

It looks back to a time when these tensions reached terrible heights, leading in the opera’s last scene to an actual burning at the stake.

Taverner, now no longer the composer of Catholic church music but a heretic-hunter for the Protestant king, has finally triumphed against his old foe the White Abbott, who he now consigns to the flames.

It ought to be a sweet moment, but Taverner realises he has betrayed himself by giving way to fundamentalist zeal. The quotation in the last few bars of his own ‘In Nomine’, played by four recorders, now has a terrible irony. 

The opera is full of such bitterly ironic juxtapositions, such as the ‘holy’ chanting from monks heard against the cynical Realpolitik of the negotiations between King and the Cardinal.

Making them dramatically effective needs a careful balancing of the textures, and here conductor Oliver Knussen proves just as masterly as one would expect. But he’s equally good at bringing out the astringent and anguished lyricism of the music, particularly the orchestral interludes in the last Act.

Martyn Hill as Taverner is shapely and accurate without being especially memorable. Amongst the other roles Stuart Cale as the Cardinal (later the Anglican Archbishop) stands out as particularly fine, relishing the unctuous cynicism of both of these fine prelates.


In all, this recording is a wonderful achievement which does justice to a powerful, timely and humane work. Ivan Hewett