TAVENER Akhmatova Requiem. Six Russian Folk Songs
I have maintained since the moment I heard it in 1981 that Tavener’s Akhmatova Requiem is a masterpiece. Not many people agreed at the time, and it still mystifies many of the composer’s admirers. I sincerely hope that this reissue of the live recording made at the 1981 Proms will change that.
Of course it is a difficult work: Akhmatova’s poetry is itself difficult in its profound bleakness, and any setting of it would of course have to reflect that. Tavener himself said that the work came nearer than any other he had written to being tragic, without that sense of redemption and transcendence that usually characterised his music. It is correspondingly dark and bleak, and transparently scored in a way that suggests the late Shostakovich, but whatever consolation may be found is inside that very bleakness. The performance is outstanding; Rozhdestvensky believed absolutely in the work and he drives the BBC SO as though his life depended on it. Phyllis Bryn-Julson was at the height of her powers and is absolutely superb in her grasp of the dramatic sweep of both poetry and music here, while the late John Shirley-Quirk is commanding in his rendition of the prayers from the Orthodox funeral service. The heart of the piece is their ecstatically beautiful duet, ‘Magdalene smote her breast’, the point at which transcendence is most nearly achieved.
The Six Russian Folksongs, written a couple of years earlier, are a lightweight pendant, given a fine outing here by Elise Ross and the Nash Ensemble. NMC deserves nothing but praise for making this remarkable music available again; and whoever had the idea of using Malevich’s Mystic Suprematism (red cross on black circle) as the cover image deserves vast congratulations.