Tavener: Mary of Egypt

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Mary of Egypt
PERFORMER: Patricia Rozario, Stephen Varcoe, Chloe Goodchild; Choristers of Ely Cathedral, Britten-Pears Chamber Choir, Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble/Lionel Friend
John Tavener’s view of his works as an extension of his Orthodox faith – Mary of Egypt is described as a ‘living’ or ‘moving icon’ – appears to put anyone not of that faith at a disadvantage. Actually a simple belief in the spiritual power of music seems sufficient to carry the listener at least some way through a plot that interleaves Mary the harlot’s journey to salvation with that of Zossima the holy man.


If, that is, you are undogmatic about musical style too. Since, unlike some, I believe that it is possible for a late 20th-century composer to provide musical nourishment from simple modal materials, the problem for me must be the way he does it here. Admittedly it’s hard to avoid banality when a work unfolds around an almost constant drone of F, largely by means of literal repetition of bare, scale-based sequences, when counterpoint is usually restricted to echo effects, and when contrast comes chiefly from the sudden eruption of totally unrelated material. Tavener just doesn’t convince me this time, though perhaps in the theatre the performers’ evident skill and passion would draw you into the ritual as it can’t on disc. Keith Potter