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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Tribute to Cavafy (1999)
Text Writer
C P Cavafy
Publisher
Chester Music Ltd
Category
Chorus a cappella / Chorus plus 1 instrument
Year Composed
1999
Duration
40 Minutes
Chorus
SATB
Soloist
Soprano
Availability
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Score   

Programme Note
John Tavener Tribute to Cavafy (1999)
This work is an intuitive response to the Graeco-Alexandrian world of the great Greek poet, Cavafy. There are seven sections, of which the first and last are identical – a setting of Meres Toύ 1903 (Days of 1903) in the original Greek.

The speaker (preferably male) has a vital part, declaiming Philip Sherrard and Edmund Keeley’s wonderful translations in four of the sections. He must convey the magnificence and grandeur appropriate to Epic Tragedy, particularly in The God Abandons Antony, Voices and Ithaka. The God Abandons Antony and Ithaka are two of Cavafy’s greatest poems, and they stand on either side of Voices, which takes on a sacred character, declaiming first the heroes of Cavafy’s art, and later the genealogy of Christ, leading to verses from St Gregory Nazianzen, a Greek Patristic writer deeply loved by Cavafy.

The music is at once tragic, grand and solemn, with a deep lyrical pathos. Movement of the singers for The God Abandons Anthony and Ithaka should be achieved with the least interruption possible: the speaker should stand among the main choir, with a separate group singing from a distance. The bells and Tibetan temple bowl may be played by members of the choir.

J.T.

Performances
Reviews
A sense of tidying up loose ends infused the belated premiere of Sir John Tavener's Tribute to Cavafy. Commissioned by Symphony Hall, Birmingham, it is a seven-movement setting of the words of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Completed in 1999, it belongs to Tavener's earlier, stark 'Greek Orthodox' phase. Vanessa Redgrave brought a bewitching presence to the role of narrator, as in the central movement, 'Voices', which required her to read out two long lists of names: first, Cavafy's literary descendants and then Christ's genealogy. In between, the choir and semi-chorus delivered radiant verse settings, gradually increasing in intensity to ecstatic effect. Sarah Connolly wreathed a beautiful solo line of euphoric, swiftly repeated notes. 'Voices' concluded magically with a gradual stripping away of the choral lines to leave the basses intoning "God", an inspired gesture. The outer layers of the piece were identical. A folk-like choral setting of 'Days of 1903' in Greek framed the work in a wistfulness entirely appropriate to words describing a lost love.
Paul Conway, The Independent,25/01/2006
His latest inspiration is the early 20th-century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. It’s a good match. With his elegiac musings about fleeting joys and lost love, and his Eliot-like penchant for classical and biblical references, Cavafy aspires to much the same amalgam of timelessness, symbolism and Mediterranean sensuality as Tavener does. Indeed, Tavener seems to recognise this by having much of his seven-movement Tribute to Cavafy narrated by a speaker — an appropriately solemn Vanessa Redgrave in this first performance. The rest is left to a multipart choir accompanied by portentous bongs from a percussionist (Joby Burgess) playing bells and a Tibetan temple bowl. Some of the choral writing is as spare as in Tavener’s little motet The Lamb, but elsewhere it blooms into ripe harmonies that push the sopranos and basses to the limits of their range. There are astringent clashes of polychoral bitonality that recall another mystic choral work — Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. But when a solo soprano (the excellent Sarah Connolly) floats an expressive decorative line over the choir’s tragic minor harmonies, what’s brought irresistibly to mind is Verdi’s Requiem. There’s the same quality of radiant beauty tinged with immense sadness.
Richard Morrison, The Times,24/01/2006
Familiar traits are all present and it’s deceptively simple, but very effective and often maddeningly hypnotic. As a performance, Tribute to Cavafy actually sounded wonderful. Philips’ 24 singers achieved almost superhuman levels of tonal richness and breath control in Tavener’s gruelling sustained vocal lines – basses frequently anchored on bottom Es and Ds, semichorus sopranos hitched up to top Cs – that showed no strain and were consistently and awesomely beautiful. Soprano soloist Sarah Connolly was just as impressive technically and expressively. In a different way, so too was narrator Vanessa Redgrave, who declaimed the words of Greek poet Constantine Cavafy with all due seriousness and a welcome avoidance of theatricality.
David Hart, Birmingham Post,23/01/2006
If you had to pick the soundtrack for heaven, the music of Sir John Tavener would probably feature prominently. Combined with the supreme vocal talents of the Tallis Scholars, the textures and harmonies of the composer’s newest work, Tribute to Cavafy, are possibly the closest to you’ll get to the celestial choir while clasping on to this mortal coil. In this world premiere Tavener’s slow-motion chant-like melodies provided a compelling underpinning of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s rich mysticism, vividly conveyed here by Vanessa Redgrave in the narrator’s role. There are moments of almost unbearable poignancy in Tribute to Cavafy, as Tavener stitches together reflections on life and loss.
Aidan Goldstraw, Express and Star,01/01/0001
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