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Tavener: The Protecting Veil, Wake Up...and Die / Yo-Yo Ma

Release Date: 10/14/2014 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 56130  
Composer:  John Tavener
Performer:  Yo-Yo Ma
Conductor:  David Zinman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baltimore Symphony OrchestraBaltimore Symphony Orchestra members
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

The success of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil for cello and strings has inevitably meant that every major recording company feels obliged to have its own version. Sony now makes its bid with Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, director David Zinman. Ma has been working hard of late to promote his image as an intelligent, sensitive cellist (but listen to how he plays and this seems unnecessary). With Zinman he has won a 1997 Grammy for recordings of new cello concertos by Danielpour, Kirchner and Rouse, so the Tavener seems a natural choice. It’s partnered by Wake Up... and Die, the world premiere recording of a work that is dedicated to Ma and written for solo cello and orchestral cello section. The seven sections of The Read more Protecting Veil challenge performers to capture the repose of Tavener’s mystical style, while retaining a sense of forward momentum without which most listeners will switch off. Though lacking a concerto’s rhetoric, the piece can still benefit from the special tone and sense of propulsion that an experienced soloist will bring to it. This is Ma’s strength; his playing is fuller and slightly more driven than that of the richly poetic Isserlis on Virgin’s benchmark original. Couplings may also be important. With Wallfisch and the RPO come Eternal Memory and Thrinos, two other Tavener cello works, finely played; with Knight and the English Sinfonia, Nyman’s Strong on Oaks. Even so, if your aim is to update your original purpose, Ma looks like a firm favourite.

Performance: 5 (out of 5), Sound: 5 (out of 5)

-- Nicholas Williams, BBC Music Magazine

Since making an immediate impact at its world premiere at the 1987 Proms concerts, John Tavener's The Protecting Veil has gone on to great critical acclaim and popular success. The widespread reception of Tavener's work has been aided in large part by the eloquent advocacy of its first interpreter, Steven Isserlis, whose Virgin recording continues to rack up the sales. Indeed, it is the sensitivity and spiritual intensity of Isserlis's premiere performance and subsequent best-selling recording that has made Tavener's meditative work the most popular cello concerto written in the modern era. Now, with the first recording by a certified international star cellist of the stature of Yo-Yo Ma, the future of The Protecting Veil seems assured.

A work of quiet, at times, ascetic meditation, Tavener's opus rises to moments of transcendent beauty and a spiritual exaltation rarely heard in music of our cynical postmodern age. Redolent of the incense and religious mystery of the British composer's Russian Orthodox faith, The Protecting Veil is cast in a single, broad, 45-minute span, divided into eight sections. The work is a staggering technical as well as interpretive challenge for the soloist, who is called upon to explore a wide yet often subtle range of expression, with barely a bar's rest throughout.

More remote and otherworldly than Isserlis's in the long opening solo, Ma's playing is consistently gentle and inward, his tonal coloring more subdued, as one might expect from an artist who seems most inspired exploring a minute range of quiet expression. Yet Ma's playing is less moving than Isserlis's at the opening, where the British musician's plaintive, febrile solo has an almost human vocal quality. Zinman's accompaniment is more assertive (or less pointedly refined— Rozhdestvensky's finely judged support is terrific), yet echoes Ma's every turn of phrase like a glove. Still, for all his laserlike focus and intensity, Ma's playing here is strangely missing in the spiritual element that is so essential to this contemplative music.

Either it's an editorial lapse or John Tavener has rethought the structure of The Protecting Veil, since the booklet divides the work into seven parts, not the previous eight. (The second section, "The Nativity of the Mother of God," is now enfolded into the eponymous opening section, which in its quarter-hour length now comprises about a third of the entire work.) In the section formerly known as "The Nativity," Isserlis conveys more of Tavener's startlingly inventive writing, suggesting a Middle Eastern bazaar milieu, yet Ma scores in his rather jaunty "Annunciation," which is quite different from Isserlis's. Yo-Yo Ma is a wonderful musician, but here, as at other times I must confess, I find his committed, even strenuous intensity sometimes eclipses the musical essence of the work he is playing. Ma's more spacious conception of the long central solo, "The Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross," seems better judged to me than Isserlis's relatively fleet account—the one aspect of Isserlis's performance that doesn't seem quite right. Yet despite adding nearly two and a half minutes, Ma doesn't find any greater spiritual mystery and sorrow in this section. Most crucially, the opening up at the start of "The Resurrection"—likely the most striking representation of pure spiritual exaltation written by any composer in the last 20 years—doesn't have any of the sense of joyous release, power, or exhilaration of the Virgin performance, sounding merely loud and busy. In the ensuing section of "The Dormition," however, Ma is superbly moving, and his withdrawn, expectant playing is most impressive. Yet it is just that kind of insight that is missing elsewhere in this performance. The final apotheosis is powerful and resonant, but I must confess I expected more from this performance and was disappointed. While there are moments of insight, I don't feel that Yo-Yo Ma is entirely inside of this music as Steven Isserlis so clearly is, evident by the natural eloquence and unique authority of his playing.

Where this new Sony issue does score is in the world premiere recording of Wake Up. . . And Die, commissioned by Sony for its star cellist. Tavener's work is scored for solo cello against an ensemble cello accompaniment. The opening palindromic solo is rather meandering, but at 4:48 a quick upward run by the soloist heralds the emergence of the backing cellos, and from then on the music becomes consistently more interesting. In fact, Wake Up. . . And Die is an inspired work with moments of striking beauty, expertly realized by Ma, and it makes a suitable coupling for its celebrated discmate.

Yo-Yo Ma is never less than interesting, and the many who admire the quiet eloquence of The Protecting Veil will snap this disc up for Wake Up. . . And Die, as they should. Yet in the main work, Steven Isserlis and Rozhdestvensky remain without peer, conveying more of the spirituality and beauty of Tavener's "lyrical icon in sound" than any rival. In fact, listening again to Isserlis's recording, my normally rambunctious West Highland White Terrier was mesmerized, silent, and transfixed by the long, singing line of Isserlis's opening solo. (I don't recommend this as an everyday critical technique, but it certainly was interesting.)

Superb recorded sound. And a special plaudit for the striking cover photos by Annie Liebovitz. The back shot of Ma's cello alone in an ethereal glowing light could not convey more perfectly the mystery and religious solace of the music. Would that all cover art were this apt and inspired.

-- Lawrence A. Johnson, FANFARE [1/1999] Read less

Works on This Recording

The Protecting Veil by John Tavener
Performer:  Yo-Yo Ma (Cello)
Conductor:  David Zinman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1987; England 
Date of Recording: 07/1996 
Venue:  Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD 
Length: 44 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Wake Up...and Die by John Tavener
Performer:  Yo-Yo Ma (Cello)
Conductor:  David Zinman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Date of Recording: 07/1996 
Venue:  Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD 
Length: 19 Minutes 11 Secs. 

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