Notes and Editorial Reviews
With the success of the ecstatic Protecting Veil, it has perhaps been easy to forget just how rigorous and austere Tavener's music was only a few years ago. When I was studying with him in 1986, his music had reached an extreme of 'inner silence'. Eis Thanaton was the work which broke through the barrier, moving painfully from darkness to light, but nevertheless the blaze of light of pieces such as the Akathist was hardly to be predicted.
An akathistos is a long hymn used in the Orthodox rite, prescribed liturgically in the modern Russian use to be sung at Matins on the Saturday in the fifth week of Great Lent. The prototype akathist (others were written later) is addressed to the Mother of God and was written during the seventh century. The text Tavener sets is not liturgical, but was written strictly according to liturgical structure by Archpriest Gregory Petrov in a Siberian prison camp shortly before his death in the 1940s. The poetry is remarkable, for the quality and variety of its life-affirming imagery as much as for the fact that it was written at all in circumstances of such adversity. The danger in setting such poetry of course is that the music will be correspondingly diverse and lack structure. To an extent Tavener has avoided this by founding each section on a pedal note which furnishes the mode (or tone, in Russian chant terminology), though to claim this as a Byzantine procedure is extremely misleading since no Byzantine composer would ever use all eight tones of the oktoechos in a single work. The undeniable musical richness of each of the sections is therefore contained within each modal 'frame', but somehow this does not generate a real harmonic structure for the work, and its lack is felt because of the music's large scale: the overall impression is diffuse.
Having said that, the score is a catalogue of riches. The dark-hued, quasi Bulgarian male-voice sections, the sparkling countertenor duets, the variety of the scoring and the deeply moving recurring ''Amin'', and the unexpected quiet climax in the ninth kontakion sung by a solo countertenor, are all things of extraordinary power. They are very well sung indeed on this live recording (though the tenors have trouble maintaining control when in the higher registers and the basses are perhaps not quite convincingly Russian-sounding enough); in particular the trebles are beyond reproach, and the duets sung by James Bowman and Timothy Wilson are wonderfully sensitive.
-- Gramophone [9/1994]