Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) wrote many substantial concert works which explore the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, and he was very concerned with exploring the riches of the Orthodox tradition outside the Church itself. “Svyati” is one such work, built as it is on a liturgical text but intended for concert performance, and with a virtuoso solo ‘cello part. The work was written in 1995, and is dedicated to the memory of the father of Tavener’s publisher, Jane Williams, who passed away as Tavener was making the initial sketches for the music.
“Svyati” means “Holy”, or, more specifically here, “Holy One”, in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian and other Slavic Orthodox Churches. The text is one of the oldest and most frequently used prayers in the Orthodox tradition, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. This prayer is used in all services of the Byzantine rite (that is, the chief rite of the Eastern Orthodox Churches), and the composer pointed out in particular its use at the funeral service, when it is sung as the coffin is taken out of the church, after the assembled people have taken leave of the departed.
The work comprises a series of choral statements of this prayer for mercy, increasing in intensity and grandeur, and deliberately recalling Russian sacred music, in dialogue with the solo ‘cello, as though between priest and choir in a liturgical service. Indeed, Tavener wrote that the solo instrument represents here the icon of Christ (Tavener frequently made connections between music and icons, and several of his works bear the title “Icon”). He requested that the performer should therefore “eschew any sentiment of a Western character”, seeking inspiration instead in the objectivity of the chanting of the Orthodox Church. Such objectivity is remarkably difficult to achieve, of course, especially in such a profoundly beautiful and moving memorial work such as this. This fine performance is by the Codetta Chamber Choir from Ireland, and the excellent ‘cellist is Kim Vaughan.
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