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WORKS: Akhmatova Requiem; Six Russian Folk Songs
PERFORMER: Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Elise Ross (soprano), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); Nash Ensemble; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
CATALOGUE NO: NMC D208 (1979/81)


These performances, last issued about 17 years ago in Carlton’s BBC Radio Classics series, were recorded at the Proms in September 1979 (Folk Songs) and August 1981. This latter performance was my proper introduction to Tavener’s work. I had heard his 1966 modernist fantasia, The Whale, but his music had changed radically, and the Requiem caught me off-balance. Perhaps its initial impact at that concert cannot be re-captured fully on disc, but this heartfelt setting of Anna Akhmatova’s blistering condemnation of Stalinist atrocities still packs an enormous emotional punch, and the sound, while not equal to the best studio quality, is good and does capture much of the atmosphere.

The Requiem grips from the start, with an incantatory passage for soprano behind which the low-register instruments sidle and seep in foggy drifts of menace and desolation. Phyllis Bryn-Julson is on strong form, portraying outrage with convincing passion while avoiding operatic melodramatics. John Shirley-Quirk, also in fine form, intercedes with pleas drawn from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, a tradition crucial to Tavener’s work for much of his composing life. The ever-versatile BBC Symphony Orchestra plays with finely controlled power throughout. Akhmatova’s poems unblinkingly describe the repression and cruelty of the gulags and prisons, yet the Requiem is, against all odds, ultimately uplifting, paying tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

The Folk Songs (suggesting the influence of Berio’s similar cycle and set as ‘convalescence’ after three years of intensive work on major pieces) are full of stereotypically Russian melancholy, but vibrant performances lift the mood.


Barry Witherden