Maxwell Davies Taverner

Maxwell Davies’s magnum opus, long delayed but well worth the wait

Author: 
Arnold Whittall
Maxwell Davies Taverner

Maxwell Davies Taverner

  • Taverner

On the one hand, sublimely euphonious sacred music; on the other hand, the primitive barbarity of torture and burnings at the stake. This was the reality of England around the time of the Reformation, as imagined and recreated by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in his first and most important opera, in which the living idioms of contemporary music strive to achieve a more potent relation to that conflicted reality than did the music of its anti-heroic composer-protagonist, John Taverner.

That this is only possible through collisions between opposed elements which generate huge intensity and a burning sense of compassionate outrage is manifest throughout this remarkable score. It reaches its apotheosis as expressionistic lament confronts foursquare hymnody, and Taverner’s own music, allowed the last word, fades into emptiness. All this is an immense challenge to the performers, and although the 1972 Covent Garden staging, revived in 1983, made heroic efforts to do justice to the opera’s inordinate demands, it was only with this BBC recording, broadcast in April 1997, that it was possible to experience the full power of the musical drama.

Of the stalwart team of solo singers, Martyn Hill, Quentin Hayes and Stuart Kale are particularly successful in their lyrical shaping of lines which can so easily become tortuously shapeless. In those places where the score provides detailed dynamic markings, it is sometimes impossible to attain the ideals which these represent. More importantly, however, conductor Oliver Knussen keeps the goals in view and the climaxes in proportion, with the strings of the BBC SO tirelessly eloquent in the searing final stages. For the most part, too, the recording balances the diverse, often superimposed sound sources, ancient and modern, with great success. At the climactic point when the townspeople proclaim that “this is the work of John Taverner, musician, servant of the King” a more forwardly balanced choral presence might have been desirable, but this is scarcely a major defect.

In 1997 NMC was able to release the BBC recording of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s magnum opus The Mask of Orpheus just a year or so after the actual performance. It has taken a lot longer for Taverner to appear but the wait has been worthwhile. There could scarcely be a more important issue to mark the year of the composer’s 75th birthday.

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