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This review is from: The Whale / Celtic Requiem (Audio CD)
Here is John Tavener like we have not heard before. Not since forty years that is, when these works first came out and they have been unobtainable since. The Whale was his 1970 recording début on the ill-fated Apple label of The Beatles and which mainly came about through the doings of (would you believe it) Ringo and, in a lesser extent, of John. It was the London Sinfonietta's début as well. A historical and remarkable event.
Tavener wrote this work halfway the sixties at the age of 22 while still studying. Days of revolution and innovation, when everything seemed possible, and this reflects in the music that is quirky and playful. Not at all like we have come to know him in later days. Whips, rattles and spoken word are featured, as are hailers, pre-recorded tapes and serial writing: everything you don't associate with Sir John Tavener and so, probably, not to everyone's liking. There is an improvisational section in which the choir is instructed to "clap hands, neigh, grunt, snort, yawn, make vomiting noises, whisper, cough, shuffle, hum and talk to each other - in any order." I suppose you get the idea.
The cantata tells the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. So already his first is a religious work, not to be mistaken for devotional.
It is, on the present recording, followed by the no less surprising Celtic Requiem that was written in 1969 and released a year after The Whale in 1971: a theatre piece knitted together from rhymes, hymns, children's songs (sung by children's choirs) and what have you. Nursery rhymes are juxtaposed to more traditional choral and orchestral phrases and again the organ is played by the composer himself. It is slightly less chaotic than its predecessor and great fun.
In the present day Sir John is still proud of these works and finds them "wonderfully fresh," according to the liner-notes that give as much background to the content as to the context. The remastered recordings are up-to-date sound quality and are well documented with the original as well as recent commentaries. Affirming my opinion that this re-issue is more of historical than artistic value.
The two concluding works Nomine Jesu and Coplas (later reworked and incorporated in Ultimos Ritos), while still modernistic, are slowly moving towards a more traditional idiom.