Shostakovich and Tavener: Joshua Roman (cello)

03.15.09
Joshua Roman
Seen and Heard International

"Serious music" is a term that often seems inappropriately applied-many of Haydn's string quartets, for example, are hard to listen to without a chuckle-but it certainly suited this program of intensely emotional works by Shostakovich and Tavener. Shostakovich was represented by the so-called Chamber Symphony: one of several string-orchestra versions of his Eighth String Quartet, this one by the American double-bassist Lucas Drew (though evidently no one had divulged the choice to program annotator Steven Lowe, who therefore understandably mentioned only the well-known Barshai version).

Among the widely varied 15 works that Shostakovich contributed to the 20th-century string-quartet repertoire, No. 8 is by no means the most inventive, but it is a compellingly saturnine meditation on the ravages of war, which explains its appeal to arrangers and performers. Certainly Christophe Chagnard and his excellent Tacoma-based chamber orchestra played it with unremitting fervor. I thought the playing was marginally less convincing in the rapid figurations of the quicker movements, which lacked the last degree of clarity, but the mournful message of the piece as a whole emerged undimmed.

For the Seattle audience, however, the big draw of the evening was presumably John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, since it featured a return appearance by Joshua Roman, who recently concluded a two-year stint as principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony to concentrate on a solo career. A performer as charismatic as he is technically and musically talented, he played on this occasion as wonderfully as ever, with commandingly incisive phrasing, and a tone that never lost focus or emotional power in the 45-minute work's almost unrelievedly high solo register.

That "almost unrelievedly" offers, however, a clue to my own response to the work itself, which was not quite as ecstatic as that of the rest of a clearly delighted audience. Now 65, the Englishman Tavener stands high among those contemporaries whose music concentrates on spirituality rather than technicality. He is often compared, as Mr Lowe noted, to the Estonian Arvo Pärt, the American Alan Hovhaness, and the Frenchman Olivier Messiaen. To that list of possible parallels I would myself add the late Polish-born, British-naturalized Andrzej Panufnik - for, like Panufnik, Tavener at his best seems to me both a more vividly inspired and a more profoundly humane composer than the rather mechanistic Pärt, the less consistently cogent Hovhaness, or the inveterately dogmatic Messiaen.

An adherent of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1977, Tavener wrote this work for cellist Steven Isserlis in 1988, taking its inspiration and title from that church's "Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God." Laid out in eight movements, which are played without a break, the music is not exactly programmatic, but there is a powerful sense that the cello part speaks for the said Mother while the string orchestra portrays a surrounding, and at times evidently hostile, world.

The problem for this listener is that the solo writing depends too much on Tavener's favored resource of repetition (which, like Messiaen, he prefers to development), while the orchestral texture consists of very little besides long-held low tones and accented chords slashed out in the squarest of repeated-note rhythms. The result must be enervating for the orchestra to play, and despite the sustained eloquence of the solo part, I found it frankly tedious to listen to.

Let me be clear: I think that some of Tavener's vocal works, especially the shorter ones, are among the most enchanting musical creations of recent decades. If you want to check out a supreme example, I strongly recommend The King's Singers' luminous recording of his Funeral Ikos, available on a Catalyst CD. It may be that the 7-minute duration of that exquisite piece responds better to Tavener's essentially static idiom than the broader spans of works like The Protecting Veil. And, as always with Tavener, who convinces me less in purely instrumental contexts, the words help. "Whither now go the souls?" ask the celebrants in this commemorative piece; "Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them? Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song: Alleluia." 

Tavener captures the infinitely touching quality of such lines to a hair's breadth, and another, comparable instance of his emotional power is his Song for Athene, which millions around the world heard when it was performed as part of Princess Diana's funeral service in 1997. I would not attempt to deny that the solo part of The Protecting Veil vividly evokes the devotional atmosphere of the rite it celebrates, but I personally need rather more musical invention than the work provides to sustain my response at full power for all of 45 minutes. The sparseness of the orchestral part contributes to the difficulty, though I must congratulate Maestro Chagnard and the Northwest Sinfonietta on their obviously dedicated and skillful support for Joshua Roman's transcendental realization of the work's real music.