Tavener: Song for Athene

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Smekkleysa
WORKS: Song for Athene; The Lamb; Iepo Oneipo; As One Who Has Slept; Schuon Hymnen; Three Holy Sonnets; Birthday Sleep; The Lord’s Prayer
PERFORMER: Gudrún Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir (soprano), Hrólfur Saemundsson (baritone); Chamber Choir of Southern Iceland/Hilmar Örn Agnarsson

Advertisement MPU reviews

The main points of interest here are the premiere recording of Three Holy Sonnets and the fact that this programme grew out of the first concert in Iceland consisting entirely of Tavener’s music, which featured the premiere of Schuon Hymnen, dedicated to the Swiss Sufi Frithjof Schuon, whose syncretist religious philosophy inspired new directions in Tavener’s music at the turn of this century.

It’s surprising that the almost legendary Sonnets had not been recorded before: begun while Tavener was still at school, admired by Stravinsky, and premiered by the London Bach Society in 1964, they still sound impressive, without needing to make allowances for the youth of the composer. Saemundsson’s performance is spot on. Although more overtly dramatic than later works, there are hints of Tavener’s mature style, including long-held notes and stately, rather ominous tempos. 

Another highlight is also a piece for soloist and orchestra, Iero Oniro, written for Patricia Rozario, who chose and coached Gudrún Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir for a 2001 Proms performance. There’s no better praise of Ólafsdóttir’s performance than to say she proves as affecting an interpreter as Rozario herself. 

Advertisement MPU reviews

While I have singled out pieces for solo singers as being of special interest, the choral performances are also excellent, a match for any others available. The choir does full justice to Tavener’s textures, investing shimmering high passages with a celestial weightlessness and bringing out the richness for lower voices. Barry Witherden